As Congress embarks on its mission to reauthorize the law that governs the flow of federal financial aid dollars, some education experts say the government has been ineffective in ensuring the quality of the nation's colleges and universities.
In a paper released Monday, Hank Brown, a former U.S. congressman, senator and president of the University of Colorado, writes that the nation's accreditation system is a "public policy and regulatory failure by almost any measure." And as Congress begins the process to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which outlines the role of accrediting agencies, Brown argues that lawmakers should consider reforms ranging from expanding the number of accrediting agencies to separating an institution's eligibility for federal funding from the accreditation process.
"A reformed system would help protect students and their families from the devastating consequences of uninformed investment in educational services that will have no return except years of staggering debt," Brown writes. "The dream of American higher education – high academic standards and broad, affordable access – depends on making these prudent changes to our system of quality assurance."
Brown, who now serves as head of the Accreditation Reform Initiative at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, writes that the accrediting agencies have failed because some of their primary roles conflict. Accrediting agencies help guide the improvement of institutions through peer evaluation but also serve as the "gatekeepers" for the Department of Education because they determine which institutions are eligible for federal funding. If an institution is not recognized by an accrediting agency, students cannot use federal financial aid there.
"The rationale was to ensure that students attended quality institutions from which they were likely to graduate and be employable, thereby safeguarding students and ensuring taxpayer dollars were well spent," Brown writes.
A conflict of interest arises, Brown writes, because the agencies are funded and staffed by the institutions they are tasked with monitoring. While this structure was meant to foster a process of peer review and self-improvement, it is complicated by the fact that accrediting agencies largely control access to federal funding, which the majority of institutions rely on to stay afloat.
Under this mindset, Brown argues, accrediting agencies also sometimes undermine the autonomy of colleges and universities by attempting to interfere in the affairs of schools' governing boards and those of state leaders on matters not directly related to academic quality. Brown references an incident from 2007 when the University of California's Board of Regents looked into supposed "runaway" administrative costs and was scolded by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, an accrediting body, for being "unnecessarily harsh."
"As such, accreditors act more like a guild or union, protecting the interests of their members and using the threat of loss of federal funding to supplant those who are, by state constitution, statute, and organizational structure, truly responsible for oversight," Brown writes.
But Paul Lingenfelter, former president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers association, says these two roles do not create a conflict.
"We don't look to engineers to accredit medical schools," Lingenfelter says. "We look for doctors to do that who are experts in the field."
While Brown suggests that the accreditation process should be separated from the agencies' "gatekeeping" role, Lingenfelter says an institution's eligibility for these funds should be targeted. Rather than hinging on the entire accreditation process, which focuses more on the quality of an institution's faculty and facilities, funding eligibility should be tied to student performance measures.