"The biggest problem in American accreditation is the failure to have clear and consistent standards for the kind of knowledge and skills a student should have when they complete a degree program," Lingenfelter says.
Brown also suggests that there should be more accrediting agencies to evaluate the diverse range of institutions, and that there should be an expedited accreditation process for institutions that are already approved by state education agencies.
Similarly, others have suggested alternate paths to accreditation, depending on an institution's track record of responsibility, financial stability and student outcomes.
Marshall Hill, executive director of National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements, made a similar suggestion in testimony before the Senate's Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on Sept. 19.
Hill said the federal government, accrediting agencies and state education agencies should work to identify institutions that have consistently demonstrated an acceptable level of quality.
"For them, the focus should be on quality enhancement – the original goal of accreditation," Hill said. But other institutions that are struggling, Hill said, should be subject to more frequent and comprehensive accreditation reviews.
Additionally, many have said student outcomes need to be weighted more heavily as an indicator of academic quality when accrediting agencies evaluate colleges and universities. Currently, institutions are evaluated based on "input" factors, including the quality of their facilities, the quality and number of their faculty and their mission statements. Brown notes in his paper that many institutions remain accredited, but have six-year graduation rates of less than 25 percent.
Having measures focused on student outcomes to determine an institution's academic quality and making them more widely available, Brown writes, would help the accreditation process.
"Accreditation has given students, parents, and public decision makers little useful information about institutions of higher education," Brown writes. "The consumer knows only one thing: the seal of approval has been bestowed."