Uncertain times for higher education accreditation

Last year President Barack Obama spooked higher education when he announced his intention to hold institutions more accountable for cost, value and quality and called for affordability and outcomes benchmarks – perhaps even a new accreditation system. In his state of the union address last month, ‘accreditation’ was not mentioned but with upcoming reauthorisation of the Higher Education Act, the issue looms large.

The reauthorisation could well include reforms to the American accreditation system, which is currently based on self-evaluation and peer review and comprises a confusing network of regionally based accrediting organisations as well as national and programmatic accreditors.

A major concern among accrediting agencies is that the federal government might wrest control. Also on the horizon is a College Ratings System being designed and implemented by the US Department of Education.

The legislative lay of the land was much discussed at the annual conference of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, or CHEA, held from 27-29 January in Washington DC. CHEA – which describes itself as a national voice for quality assurance – represents around 3,000 degree-granting colleges and universities and 60 accrediting organisations.

The conference was addressed by leaders of key committees in the US Senate and House of Representatives, the acting under secretary of education and the chair of the Department of Education’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity.

Senator Tom Harkin

Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa and chair of the influential Senate committee on Health, Education, Labour and Pensions – HELP – said its top priorities this year would be advancing college affordability and reauthorising the Higher Education Act.

The act was first passed in 1965, aimed at strengthening the educational resources of colleges and universities and providing financial assistance for students. It was, Harkin told the conference, a “giant leap” for the federal government, which until then had only been peripherally involved in higher education, which is a state responsibility.

“Forty-nine years and nine reauthorisations later, the landscape of higher education has changed dramatically.” The HELP committee was taking a fresh look at the Higher Education Act “in the light of these changes and new challenges”.

One challenge was “relentlessly rising college costs” and another was an increasingly diverse and non-traditional student body. “In the past we focused a great deal on access. Now we need to have an equal eye on student success.”

Harkin said he had expressed serious concerns in recent years about the ability and capacity of the US accreditation system to effectively improve and monitor more than 7,000 higher education institutions of various scopes, missions and sizes.

“Unfortunately, the self-reporting and peer review nature of the accreditation process, otherwise considered one of the essential strengths of the system, exposes it to manipulation by schools that are more concerned with their bottom line than with academic quality and improvement.”

More needed to be done to monitor institutions, Harkin stressed, “and when necessary to remove some bad actors from the system”. He applauded accreditors who had been taking steps to strengthen standards, including putting more emphasis on student outcomes.

For its part, Congress had taken major steps to improve college affordability and there had been real progress in boosting access – although much more needed to be done in a country where students from high-income families were seven times more likely than those from low-income backgrounds to receive a bachelor degree by age 24.

Recent HELP committee hearings on reauthorisation of the Higher Education Act had been an opportunity to have a constructive conversation about how higher education could meet the 21st century needs of citizens and America.

“A key takeaway from those hearings is that much more can be done to provide transparency to students and families, and I think that also could be true of accreditation. The public at large is unclear about the roles regional, national and programmatic accreditors play and the differences between them.”

Those differences mattered, Harkin told the conference, and had real consequences for students, determining whether or not they could transfer credits between institutions and whether debt-burdened graduates could access the professions they had trained for.

“Many Americans now are questioning the value of a college degree. Quality issues are a big part of that scepticism. The public needs to know that it can rely on accreditation. They need to know that accreditation means something. The public is also unclear about the meaning of sanctions against schools by individual accrediting agencies.”

Harkin said government wanted to move towards some form of standardisation – this was expected to be a key issue during reauthorisation of the act. Also on the table would be complaints from accreditors about increased regulatory burdens, and Harkin called on them to provide the committee with information on how to ease this problem.

“As we work to reauthorise the Higher Education Act, we have the opportunity to reassess the law and ensure that we have an accreditation system that meets the needs of today’s students and taxpayers.

“We need to examine whether the current accreditation system sufficiently guarantees the quality of education that students receive at post-secondary institutions. We also face the challenge of improving the system to ensure that it can adapt to the changes of the 21st century and the changing nature of our student body.”

In a recorded speech to the conference, Republican Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, chair of the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, said reauthorisation of the Higher Education Act would provide the chance to streamline accreditation.

Ratings system

Jamienne Studley, acting under secretary of education, said during a panel discussion that the Department of Education would develop a first draft of the College Ratings System by mid-2014 and hoped to publish it next year.

A former college president, Studley said she had long advocated putting student interests at the centre of higher education. Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan “care deeply about improving student outcomes and quality”, she said, and it was this that was driving development of the controversial college ratings.

Susan Phillips, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the State University of New York at Albany and chair of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity – an advisory body to the US Secretary of Education – said the political focus was squarely on college affordability.

Politicians were concerned about the costs to constituents and the affordability of higher education, but this was “drowning out conversations about quality” and was a major challenge for higher education.

“What happens when you relate quality and cost is a very real question that is being asked.” She urged the accreditation community to make suggestions for the College Ratings System and the reauthorisation of the act – and to make their voices heard.

Accountability changes

In his state of the union speech last year, Obama’s call for accountability changes were outlined in a supplementary document, and included developing benchmarks for affordability and student outcomes as criteria for receiving federal student financial aid.

Accreditation needed to provide pathways for higher education institutions to receive federal student aid based on performance and results. On 29 January the College Affordability and Innovation Act of 2014 was introduced to the Senate.

According to CHEA, the bill will create an independent commission of students, academics and education stakeholders to develop minimum accountability standards for making college more affordable, more accessible for middle- and low-income students, and value-adding.

The Department of Education would reward institutions that met or exceeded the standards with competitive grants “funded with penalties paid by consistently underperforming schools”, which would be ‘incentivised’ through requirements to develop plans to meet the standards within five years. Institutions that did not meet accountability standards within five years would become ineligible for funding.

A question asked during the conference was whether global university rankings had become a proxy for quality assurance, and whether they were driving the discussion around quality.

Nature, the saying goes, abhors a vacuum – and in the United States it appears that the vacuum of understanding of accreditation bodies is set to be filled by the federal government.


Universities should be held accountable for superfluous spending; it is rampant here in Australia where universities waste so much money on nonsense, rather than giving better support to staff and students.

Christopher Weir on the University World News Facebook page