On June 13, 2013, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Higher Education and the Workforce held a hearing focusing on accreditation. The hearing – “Keeping College Within Reach: Program Quality through Accreditation” – featured testimony from Elizabeth Sibolski, President of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Michale McComis, Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, Anne Neal, President of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and Kevin Carey, Director of the Education Policy Program of the New America Foundation.
Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina), Chair of the Subcommittee, presided at the hearing. She was joined by John Kline (R-Minnesota), Chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee. Other Subcommittee members who attended the hearing were Tim Walberg (R-Michigan), Susan Davis (D-California), Brett Guthrie (R-Kentucky), John Tierney (D-Massachusetts), Richard Hudson (R-North Carolina), Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon), Susan Brooks (R-Indiana) and Matt Salmon (R-Arizona).
Subcommittee Chair Foxx and Ranking Member Hinojosa framed the hearing with their opening comments. Issues included (1) exploring reform of traditional accreditation, (2) the importance of encouraging innovation in higher education and assuring quality, perhaps through a new or alternative accreditation model, especially for emerging extra-institutional offerings such as massive open online courses or other online offerings from non-institutional providers and (3) the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act as an opportunity to strengthen accreditation. This was followed by presentations from each of the four panel members. Much of the questioning and discussion from subcommittee members focused on whether and how accreditation was meeting the country’s need for quality education, the cost of accreditation and the time involved in obtaining and maintaining accredited status.
Beth Sibolski and Michale McComis spoke to the strengths and value of accreditation, providing examples of ways in which accreditation has embraced greater transparency, accountability for student learning and innovation. They spoke to the importance of peer review to a thorough and careful examination of academic quality. Each offered suggestions for further strengthening accreditation and its role as well as actions that might be taken by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) that would be helpful.
Anne Neal and Kevin Carey offered a number of criticisms of accreditation, urging that its gatekeeping role either be eliminated or undergo major modification and that serious consideration be given to an alternative system that would focus more directly on consumer information and financial stability and embrace educational offerings outside traditional colleges and universities.
Chair Foxx concluded the session by indicating her concern about the lack of minimal standards for outcomes, asking what accreditation as a “good housekeeping seal” really means with regard to schools with low graduation rates and high default rates and whether accreditation is stifling innovation.
Several messages emerged from the hearing. These messages are notable in that they reaffirm similar ideas expressed by other members of Congress and USDE. First, the interest in some kind of alternative accreditation is bipartisan, although the level of this interest is not yet known. Second, the historical government reliance on traditional accreditation is called seriously into question, especially as compared to the 1998 and 2008 reauthorizations. Third, at least at this hearing, the primary criteria by which accreditation is being judged were (1) the quality of institutional performance as described by whether students graduate, the level of student indebtedness and a level of transparency sufficient to meaningfully inform the public, (2) the cost and time involved in accreditation and (3) accreditation’s capacity to engage innovation in higher education, especially extra-institutional providers of educational offerings.
A copy of Chair Foxx’s opening statement, written remarks by the four witnesses and an archived Webcast of the hearing are available on the House Education and the Workforce Committee’s Website.