For at least the third time since 1990, the issue of overhauling the nation's accreditation system is once again on the agenda of federal education officials. It was the subject of a meeting Thursday that began with a host of higher-education experts recalling problems critics have leveled at the process for at least 20 years. While accreditation has made incremental changes over that time, some believe the time for more significant change may be ripe, given the growing federal spending on student aid, scathing new attacks on the quality of college education and a national push to increase the proportion of citizens with a postsecondary degree or certificate.
The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, an 18-member panel that advises the education secretary on recognizing the nation's accrediting agencies, met Thursday to begin two days of discussion about what is working and what is not in the current accreditation system. The panel will develop recommendations on accreditation for the U.S. Education Department to consider for the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is scheduled to expire in 2013.
The committee's role in providing advice on the reauthorization is a new one. That shift has raised concerns among campus officials and accreditors that the federal government will take an even larger role in overseeing accreditation and, by extension, the academic practices and policies of colleges.
Arthur J. Rothkopf, president emeritus of Lafayette College and vice-chairman of the committee, said more federal oversight of accreditation is practically inevitable, considering the growing amount of federal money that is pouring into higher education in the form of Pell Grants for low-income students and federally backed student loans.
Colleges must be approved by a federally recognized accreditor for their students to receive federal financial aid. As federal funds for financial aid have increased to an estimated $150-billion annually, there have been calls from Congress and the White House to ensure that accreditors are adequately monitoring the academic quality and fiscal soundness of the institutions that they approve. Democratic lawmakers, in particular, have taken a pointed interest in the regulation of for-profit colleges, which are among the fastest-growing in the country and rely heavily on federal student aid to bolster their bottom lines.
While concerns about regulating for-profit institutions has been amplified in recent years, many of the presentations given to the committee on Thursday—including by panels of federal- and state-policy experts, institutions, and accrediting organizations—focused on several dissatisfactions with accreditation that are decades old.
Among the most common complaints were that accreditors and institutions are not open enough about the process and provide too little information to the public and policy makers about how accreditation works and what it measures. Another frequent refrain was that accreditation is out of date, relying on an arcane system of regional associations that give the same imprimatur to community colleges as they do to elite research universities. Several presenters said that accreditors have a limited range of punishments to dole out, creating a simplistic pass-or-fail system that rarely weeds out even the most dismally performing institutions.
Similar concerns about accreditation have been discussed since the early 1990s, Peter T. Ewell, vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a nonprofit policy-analysis organization, told the committee.
Mr. Ewell and others suggested some possible changes to accreditation, including developing common language to describe how accreditors evaluate colleges. Such a framework could also lead to a more standardized set of measures that colleges could report to the public, on such factors as student retention and degree or credit completions.
Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which represents some 3,000 accredited institutions, argued that more standardization among accreditors would set only a minimum threshold of quality, essentially forming a ceiling for improvement rather than a floor.
Nearly all the panelists, however, were opposed to a greater federal role in regulating accreditation. "Let's not overstep by encouraging compliance at the price of collegiality," Ms. Eaton said. She supports the system of peer review that forms the backbone of the accreditation system.
Mr. Ewell also said that the pressure from Congress and the Education Department to increase accreditors' roles monitoring federal compliance would cause them to operate inconsistently with their historic role as guarantors of academic quality. Federal and state governments also play a key role in overseeing higher-education practice, he said.
Fear of Unintended Effects
Richard Arum, one of the authors of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press), also weighed in against more-stringent federal rules on accreditation. Mr. Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University, said that more federal regulations and new accreditation mandates might just lead colleges to perform what sociologists call "symbolic compliance." That is, colleges might simply go through the motions to satisfy the accreditors' literal demands, without actually changing their general practices.
Kevin Carey, a policy analyst with Education Sector, a nonprofit group, and a contributor to The Chronicle's Brainstorm blog, and some other presenters even argued that accreditors should no longer be the gatekeepers for federal financial aid, leaving the role of monitoring the use of tax dollars to the Education Department. The role of regulating the fast-growing for-profit sector of higher education should be managed by a new consumer protection agency, Mr. Carey said, while accreditors should remain focused on ensuring academic integrity.
On Friday, the committee will begin its efforts to develop recommendations for Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
If history is any guide, however, federally mandated changes to the accreditation system will be hard won, if at all. Efforts to overhaul the system were made during the 1992 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, said David A. Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, with little impact on the process. "A lot was done, but not much change occurred," he said.
More recently, a commission convened by then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who served under President George W. Bush, recommended that the federal government be able to set academic measures that accreditors would require. That recommendation was rejected by a Democratic-controlled Congress when it reauthorized the Higher Education Act in 2008, and the law specifically barred the Education Department from setting those standards.
But Mr. Rothkopf, the committee's vice chairman, said the group could overcome past difficulties because of the level of federal interest and the need to ensure quality in higher education as a way to improve the economy. "What's different, maybe, now is that ... we are talking about serious dollars," he said.