Accreditation has proven highly successful over the years. The existence of an effective non-governmental means for assessing academic quality makes possible the diversity and independence of U.S. institutions of higher education. As such, any changes made to accreditation must take into account individual institutions and their missions, and must respect institutional autonomy.
Because the federal government relies on private accreditation as a means to assure the educational quality of the institutions attended by the students it supports, it is appropriate that there be some standards for the recognition of accreditors. However, accrediting agencies must not become surrogate government enforcement agencies, and uniformity should not be imposed on institutions in the name of accountability. In addition, the frank and open discussions that are essential to the success of the accreditation process must not be undermined through excessive disclosure requirements.
The most important challenge to policymakers is finding an appropriate balance between assuring federal accountability and preserving distinctive institutional missions and approaches. In addition, they must avoid assigning to accreditors responsibilities that they are neither designed nor equipped to handle.
Accreditation is a process of peer review and self-study designed to assist institutions of higher education in maintaining and enhancing the quality of their educational offerings. It has allowed a diversity of institutions to flourish through its mission-based approach—helping make American higher education the standard for the world.
Although accreditation long predates the enactment of the Higher Education Act (HEA), it is now an integral part of establishing institutional eligibility to participate in federal student aid programs. Maintaining an appropriate balance among institutions, accreditors, and the federal government has always been challenging. These challenges have grown, as policymakers have envisioned more robust roles for accreditation in dealing with fraudulent institutions, assessing new education services and providers, and measuring student and institutional achievement.
Federal Accreditation Policy
Since its enactment in 1965, the HEA has required institutions to be accredited by a recognized accreditor in order to participate in federal student aid programs. More detailed accreditation requirements were included in the 1992 amendments to the Act as part of a broader effort to protect program integrity.
In the early 2000s, the Department of Education attempted to use the accreditation process to require colleges and universities to adopt “bright-line” measures of student achievement. This effort prompted a strong response from the leadership of the six major educational associations, who concluded the efforts of the Department would fundamentally change the relationship among accreditors, institutions, and the federal government. Congress responded by including a provision in the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) that prohibits the Department from regulating student achievement standards. The HEOA also revised the appointment process to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), which advises the Secretary of Education about the recognition of accreditation agencies.
Subsequently, concern about fraud and abuse in the student aid programs led to the issuance of regulations that included a federal definition of a “credit hour,” and assigned enforcement of the definition to accrediting agencies. Many members of Congress have also asserted that accreditors should play a central role in combatting fraud and abuse.
More recently, the role of accreditation in the evaluation of non-traditional education providers has been the subject of wide-ranging discussions by policy analysts and lawmakers. One recent administration initiative, known as EQUIP, is experimenting with means to provide federal aid for unaccredited programs.
The upcoming HEA reauthorization is likely to produce changes in accreditation policy. A White Paper issued by Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) outlines a broad array of current accreditation policy questions and proposals. In addition, in November 2015, the Obama Administration issued a set of executive actions and legislative recommendations related to accreditation—including a call for the repeal of the prohibition on the Secretary’s ability to develop student learning outcome metrics. The Department of Education has also recently released guidance concerning the mandatory use of differentiated accreditation, and sought public comment regarding increased accreditation information collection. collection.