Trustees | Trusteeship

Ideas for Overhauling Accreditation Take Shape as Reauthorization Talk Begins

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  September 30, 2013 by Eric Kelderman

A new report from a former president of the University of Colorado has set the stage for a vigorous debate on the future of higher-education accreditation. That topic could be a central focus of Congress as it takes up the reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act.

George H. (Hank) Brown, who is also a former Republican U.S. senator from Colorado, released his report on Monday, laying out what are essentially the conservative arguments against the current system of regional and national accreditation, which serves as one of the gatekeepers to federal student aid.

“The government’s approach to quality assurance and consumer protection is a public policy and regulatory failure by almost any measure,” Mr. Brown writes in the opening sentence of the report, which goes on to ascribe a lengthy list of shortcomings to the current system, including low graduation rates, soaring rates of student-loan debt and default, and a general stifling of innovation and autonomy in higher education.

Mr. Brown is also the head of the Accreditation Reform Initiative of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and the report was published by the American Enterprise Institute, where Mr. Brown is scheduled to participate on Monday afternoon on a four-member panel discussing possible reforms for the nation’s accreditation system.

Not only do accreditors fail to safeguard the federal investment in higher education, but they are also poor guardians of academic quality, Mr. Brown argues in the report. “Many accredited public and nonprofit colleges and universities across the country fail even basic tests of quality yet remain accredited,” he writes. “The evidence of their failure is writ large in the media, in scholarly studies, and in major federal surveys.”

Arguing for an Overhaul

Mr. Brown recommends several measures to reform the accreditation system, many of which have been proposed during previous reauthorization debates, including severing the link between accreditation and federal financial aid; requiring colleges to disclose data on student learning, debt, and postgraduation incomes; and streamlining the process for colleges that voluntarily disclose that and other information.

In addition, Mr. Brown says, new kinds of accrediting organizations should be allowed and encouraged to form to better serve the diverse missions of the nation’s colleges.

Mr. Brown will not be alone on the panel arguing for an overhaul of the existing accreditation system. Arthur J. Rothkopf, president emeritus of Lafayette College, has also been an outspoken critic of the system during his service on the federally appointed organization that recommends federal recognition for the nation’s accrediting bodies, known as the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity.

The advisory committee has already issued its own set of recommendations for reforming accreditation, which fall short of a major overhaul.

Another education-reform advocate, Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation, has been at the forefront of helping colleges and the U.S. Education Department move toward acceptance of competency-based education, which allows students to progress at their own pace by mastering measured “competencies” rather than spending a fixed amount of time in class.

On the side of the accreditors will be Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which represents some 3,000 accredited colleges and recognizes 60 accrediting organizations. While acknowledging that accreditation must change in some ways, the council has generally advocated for preserving many current practices, especially the peer-review process that places the review of institutions in the hands of fellow academics.


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