Dear Commons Community,
Buried in the US Department of Education’s 400-plus pages of proposed regulations, are changes meant to spur competition among the nation’s accrediting organizations — the groups that oversee the academic quality and federal compliance of their member colleges. The proposed rules would allow the seven regional accreditors, whose membership is largely limited to particular states, to accredit colleges outside their geographic boundaries. As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
“The idea of abolishing the regional boundaries of this group of accreditors is not a new one, and it has some support even among those who are critical of the department’s reasoning. “At some point we do have to break down these regional barriers,” said David A. Bergeron, a senior fellow for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress. But to do it properly requires a change in the federal law, not just tweaking the regulations, he said.
That “tweaking” is not expected to cause an immediate shift in the accreditation landscape. But it is part of the department’s goal of leveling the playing field between traditional public and nonprofit colleges and the for-profit sector. And in the long run, critics fear, it will cause institutions to seek only the accreditor that provides the least oversight.”
Accreditation has increasingly come under scrutiny from policy makers and the public as the demand and price for a college credential has risen in recent decades. The Education Department’s current proposals are just the latest attempt to overhaul a system that is often seen as an anachronism.
The current regional accreditors developed as voluntary-membership organizations late in the 19th century when the limits of travel and communication made it practical to restrict the boundaries of organizations that rely on peer review and campus visits. The seven regional groups that emerged now oversee the vast majority of public and private, nonprofit colleges in areas that range from two states to 19.
But higher education looks a lot different than it did more than a century ago: Many colleges now enroll students across all states and around the globe through branch campuses and online courses.
Although accreditation is technically still voluntary, it has become essential to most colleges since the middle of the 20th century when the government required it in order to receive federal student aid. Now, a process that was developed as a voluntary means of academic quality assurance has been layered with dozens of requirements to police federal compliance.
The tensions over the regional divisions in accreditation have resulted in some complaints that the system is a sort of monopoly, said Susan D. Phillips, a professor of educational and counseling psychology and also a member of a panel that advised the department on accreditation. Colleges accredited by a regional agency may comply with an accreditor, she said, not because the standards are best for their institution but because they have no other options.
Related to that, she said, some colleges have felt that they are being evaluated by institutions that are not truly peers but simply close to them geographically.
Bergeron, who served as acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education under President Barack Obama, said there was discussion about how to end the regional division.
“We have this mish-mash that doesn’t serve anyone,” he said.
Some elite institutions, in particular, felt the process was too burdensome and not tailored to their missions. Instead of assigning geographic boundaries, many of these colleges wanted accreditation to focus on the differing goals and outcomes that colleges wanted to achieve. High-level research universities, for example, or community colleges could be grouped under the same accreditor, Bergeron says.
At the same time, however, the department made it clear that accreditors should be evaluated, in part, on the success of their students.
The regulations now coming from the Education Department aren’t expected to cause a rush of colleges to switch accreditors.
If finalized, the new rules would allow, but not require, the agencies to accredit main campuses in states where they also oversee a branch campus of a college within their region. For some accreditors, this could result in applications from all or nearly all states. The Higher Learning Commission, for example, now oversees colleges in 19 states, with branch campuses in 28 other states.
All of this is a step in the wrong direction, said the Higher Learning Advocates, a bipartisan advocacy and consulting group. In comments to the department, the organization’s executive director, Julie Peller, wrote that the distinctions and expertise within the regions are still important to evaluating a college.
“Regional accreditors are membership associations that serve institutions in specific regions of the country and utilize peer-review and regional workforce and employment trends to best review and approve institutions under their purview.”
Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher-education policy at the think-tank New America, said that removing regional distinctions has to be seen as part of the department’s broader goals to make it easier for new institutions and programs to get federal student aid with less oversight from both the department and accrediting agencies
Opening up competition among accreditors will lead to the worst-performing colleges’ seeking the least rigorous oversight, she said.
“The concept of competition in any regulatory market is a complete and total myth and will cause an immediate race to the bottom.”
In sum, not a good idea!