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.
"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."