Leaving College Accreditation Alone

The Higher Education Act, the federal law that governs the administration of federal student aid programs, will be revised in 2013. Some reformers thought that this might be a good opportunity to take care of problems with the way college accreditation currently works. That’s not going to happen.

Currently only institutions accredited by agencies recognized by the Department of Education are eligible to receive federal financial aid. But the accreditation system now operating doesn’t really ensure that the colleges are doing good jobs, and also arguably acts as a hindrance to innovation.

Because accrediting agencies derive their funding from the institutions they accredit, the structure of the relationship is a little awkward, too.

The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity met to investigate the problem and propose solutions. According to an article by Libby Nelson in Inside Higher Ed

Two of three possible recommendations involved reimagining how accreditation works: separating accreditation from the eligibility process for federal student aid, or modifying the link between the two to create an “either/or” system wherein colleges would have to meet baseline criteria established by the government and then could pursue either accreditation or governmental certification.

In laying out the rationale for such a change, the committee argued that accreditors were playing a role to which they are badly suited. “With a federal interest in accreditation standards and processes comes an array of consequences that are neither appropriate nor desirable,” the committee wrote in its draft report.

But it turned out that real reform was just too hard. Nelson:

Higher education groups, individual accreditors and others pushed back, sometimes strongly, in written comments: accreditors believed that the link between aid eligibility and accreditation is the strongest tool they possess, while institutions feared more federal oversight. The consensus from the higher education and accrediting fields was overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the link between aid program eligibility and accreditation, committee members said.

And so, in the end, the committee, made up of higher education officials from around the country, voted to make few changes. According to the article slightly more than half of the members voted to keep the relationship between accreditation and aid basically the same. A few members also voted to give accreditors more flexibility than they currently enjoy and to conduct more and better data investigation.

This is the committee, by the way, that exists specifically “to provide recommendations to the Secretary concerning whether accrediting entities’ standards are sufficiently rigorous and effective.”

The committee apparently believes that college accreditation is pretty much fine as is.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer