Accreditors just can't win in Congress. Republican members generally think accreditation costs too much for institutions, stifles innovation, and is too secretive. Democrats generally think accreditation goes too easy on for-profit institutions and doesn't safeguard parents and students from programs that will saddle them with debt and worthless degrees.
Those criticisms were aired again on Thursday in the U.S. House of Representatives, where the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training held a hearing to discuss the frustrations of members in both parties with the current system.
Fast-changing student demographics, along with new uses of technology in higher education through online courses and the growing interest in competency-based learning, may require significant changes in how accreditors operate, or even an alternative accreditation system, suggested Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican of North Carolina and the subcommittee's chairwoman.
"If standards to measure quality continue to be based on so-called traditional programs and students of the past, those institutions working diligently to innovate and serve the needs of today's students ... could be at an accreditation disadvantage," Representative Foxx said in her prepared remarks at the beginning of the hearing.
The senior Democrat on the committee, Rep. Rubén E. Hinojosa, Democrat of Texas, said that, as lawmakers work to renew the Higher Education Act, they must "ensure that the accreditation process provides for high-quality education programs that are worthy of student and taxpayer investment and lead to good family-sustaining jobs and careers."
Two outspoken critics of the accreditation system, who approach the issue from very different viewpoints, encouraged the subcommittee to overhaul how the federal government regulates higher education.
Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the nonprofit New America Foundation and a contributor to The Chronicle, sees a strong regulatory role for the nation's six regional accrediting organizations, but they were simply not designed or equipped to handle the dual and sometimes competing roles of evaluating the quality of colleges and also serving as a gatekeeper to federal student aid.
Colleges must be accredited by a federally recognized accreditor in order for their students to be eligible for federal student aid, such as Pell Grants or federally backed student loans.
As a result of what he called a failing system, higher-education costs have risen to unsustainable levels while the quality of that education has steadily declined.
"The accreditation system did not stand by and allow costs to skyrocket and standards to decline because accreditors are indifferent to these problems," Mr. Carey said. "They did it because the accreditation system is not equipped to solve these problems. It never has been, and never will be, as currently designed."
Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said the accreditation process is too burdensome for existing institutions and too costly for new and innovative colleges seeking approval.
One solution, she said, is to remove the gatekeeping function from accreditors, breaking the link between accreditation and federal student aid.
"To protect the federal dollar," Ms. Neal said, "institutions would establish their financial stability, as they must do today, and post a statement on their Web sites, certified by an independent auditor, that they have sufficient resources to ensure that all enrolled students can be supported to the completion of their degrees."
In addition, colleges would have to provide to the public a basic set of information, such as the cost of attendance, degree programs offered, graduation rates, student-loan default rates, and job-placement rates, she said.
Access to better information about colleges would allow parents and students to make a more-efficient choice about where to enroll, said Ms. Neal, who is also a member of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, which advises the education secretary on recognizing accrediting agencies.
Accreditors Defend Their Work
Representatives of accrediting organizations defended the current system at the hearing, saying their groups were responding to changes in the educational landscape and the demand for greater accountability from lawmakers and the public.
Elizabeth H. Sibolski, president of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, said federal regulations were partly to blame for the burdensome nature of the process.
And the million-dollar costs of accreditation sometimes cited by research universities are overblown, said Ms. Sibolski, who referred to a doctoral dissertation by Paul Woolston Jr., director of admissions at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music. Mr. Woolston's study found that doctoral research universities spend an estimated $400,000 during an accreditation cycle, usually seven to 10 years.
Michale S. McComis, executive director of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, said his organization's member institutions spend about $10,000 for a two-year accreditation process. And because of the variety and complexity of higher education, accreditors and colleges are still best suited to regulate their own industry, he said.
While Congress has a duty to protect its spending on higher education, Mr. McComis said, "this should be done without injecting undue and inappropriate federal intrusion into the academic processes of higher education."