President Obama didn't mention accreditation in his State of the Union address on Tuesday evening. But in a supplemental document released after the speech, the president made it clear that he is seeking major changes in the accountability system for higher education.
In the middle of the nine-page document, "The President's Plan for a Strong Middle Class and a Strong America," Mr. Obama laid out his broad intent to hold "colleges accountable for cost, value, and quality," including a call to set benchmarks for affordability and student outcomes as criteria for receiving federal student financial aid. Regional and national accreditors are now the primary gatekeepers for access to those dollars.
New benchmarks could be incorporated "into the existing accreditation system," the plan states, or created "by establishing a new, alternative system of accreditation that would provide pathways for higher-education models and colleges to receive federal student aid based on performance and results."
Accreditors and other higher-education experts said a direct reference to accreditation by a sitting president was rare. But being on the president's radar isn't necessarily viewed as a positive by accreditors and colleges, which could be in for even greater federal scrutiny.
Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which represents some 3,000 accredited colleges and more than 60 accrediting organizations, said the president's proposals to overhaul accreditation or create a new system were completely unexpected. "I was, at first, startled," she said. "How did accreditation make it into the supplemental materials for the State of the Union?"
President Obama is not, however, the first to suggest that the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act could include significant reform of accreditation, Ms. Eaton said. Earlier this year, when a federal panel recommended some middling changes in the accreditation system, a minority of that panel proposed more-sweeping reforms, including separating the accreditation process from eligibility for federal student aid.
A new pathway to accreditation might be based on more consumer-friendly information, such as graduation rates, job placements, and salaries, Ms. Eaton said, but it wouldn't necessarily deal with core issues of academic quality that employers are also concerned about, such as critical-thinking skills.
"What this means for accreditation, we don't really know," Ms. Eaton said of the president's plan, "but a new system of accreditation that is government-run is a concern."
Efforts Already Under Way
For their part, accreditors say they are already responding to accountability concerns and providing pathways for alternative approaches.
The administration's concerns "do align in a number of ways with recent revisions in our standards and processes," said Sylvia Manning, president of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which oversees postsecondary institutions in 19 states. For example, the Higher Learning Commission has increased its standards for assessing student learning and more explicitly requires colleges to have a plan for improving student-retention and graduation rates, Ms. Manning wrote in an e-mail.
In addition, the commission now annually requires the institutions it accredits to provide data on the student-loan-default rates of their students, she wrote. "And we are going to start making accreditation results more easily available and more meaningful to the public."
Accreditors also say they are responding to the rapid growth of massive open online courses and the movement toward awarding academic credit based solely on student assessment—sometimes referred to as competency-based education—rather than the traditional measure of seat time a student spends in a course.
The Northeast Commission on Higher Education, for example, recently approved Southern New Hampshire University's plan to award credit based on competencies demonstrated through tasks meant to simulate “real world” workplace requirements like critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and writing and speech skills, said Paul LeBlanc, the university’s president. The plan is under way, and the university is awaiting final approval from the U.S. Department of Education to award federal student aid for the students in the program.
"In our region, we have taken a look ... to see if we feel we are prepared to deal with competency-based assessment and feel that, at least for the moment, we are," said Belle S. Wheelan, president of another regional accrediting organization, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
And accreditors point out that the Education Department has not been entirely helpful in fostering innovations such as "direct assessment" in higher education, for example by not better promoting the option to develop competency-based programs.
While some in the Education Department have called for more widespread acceptance of competency-based programs and flexibility for accreditors, the department's inspector general issued a trio of reports in 2009 that reinforced mainstream approaches by faulting regional accreditors for failing to set minimum standards for program length or credit hours. The inspector general recommended that the department penalize the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. That has made some accrediting agencies more cautious about what innovations they are willing to pursue.
Still, if the federal government wants accreditation that is suited to the changing educational environment, the existing organizations are still better equipped than the Education Department is to monitor academic quality, said Ms. Manning.
"As to an alternative system, it's worth noting that the current system has been responsive to changes and innovations," Ms. Manning wrote, "and is conducted at much lower cost to anyone than a government agency could do."
Corrections (2/14/2013, 11:41 a.m.): This article originally said that Southern New Hampshire University's plan to award credit was based on competencies demonstrated through tests, portfolios, clinical observations, and other assessments. In fact, the students must demonstrate proficiency through tasks meant to simulate workplace requirements like critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and writing and speech skills. The article also stated that the university was awaiting final approval from the U.S. Department of Education to carry out its plan, but the plan is in fact under way. The university awaits the department's approval to award federal student aid for students in the program. The article has been corrected to reflect those points.