In the year since Education Secretary Margaret Spellings formally embraced the work of her Commission on the Future of Higher Education and began her efforts to carry out its work, no topic has been more at the forefront than the system of regional and national accreditation that higher education, the government and states use to ensure the quality of American colleges and universities.
Although the topic was far from front and center in the commission's report, the Education Department has put changes in accreditation at the fulcrum of its campaign to force higher education institutions to be more accountable to the public. The department has turned up the heat on accrediting agencies in the department's process for recognizing and approving accreditors, and unsuccessfully sought new federal rules aimed at forcing the agencies to collect and report significantly expanded information on how well colleges they oversee educate students, the latter effort largely stymied by Congress to date.
Anyone who has been perplexed about the Bush administration's reasons for using accreditation as a tool to achieve its larger goals in higher education may have found some answers Friday at a session sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington. The half-day event, "Higher Education Accreditation: Evaluating the System and Possible Alternatives," was not exactly an even-handed review of the accreditation system: The nine participants were heavily tilted toward critics who have spoken or written of accreditation's flaws, with a lone speaker, Judith S. Eaton of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation, who could be seen as representing the views of accreditors, though she herself is not one.
Four of the speakers were closely tied to the Spellings Commission, including its chairman, Charles Miller, who, freed from whatever constraints he felt while leading the federal panel, made clear a disdain for accreditation that had been muted in the panel's final report. Miller, who has continued to consult regularly with department officials since the commission formally shut down, gave a keynote address in which he described accrediting agencies as self-regulatory bodies that are "fundamentally and inherently biased" toward the colleges they supposedly judge, operate in secret, and "lack true oversight or public accountability." The accreditation system holds colleges to outmoded definitions of quality that discourage experimentation by traditional institutions and make it difficult for colleges with new instructional or business models to develop.
"Accredition is the primary barrier to innovation in American higher education," Miller said. "Accreditation is the biggest barrier to real competition. Accreditation is the biggest barrier to real change."
Arthur J. Rothkopf, another Spellings Commission alumnus who was president of Lafayette College and is now a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was one of several panelists who characterized the system of regional accreditation as a way for traditional colleges and universities to shield themselves from making necessary changes. College leaders have fought federal and other efforts to require accrediting agencies to make their reports on individual colleges public, and he accused higher education associations and campus presidents of "trying to run out the clock," resisting change to limit what the Bush administration can accomplish in the 15 months it has left in office.
"Guess what, that's not going to happen," said Rothkopf, who noted that his views on accreditation were "evolving," and presumably not in a positive direction. "People are concerned about quality and accountability," and "the academy has to understand" that that concern will remain even after Spellings and Bush are gone. "I urge my colleagues in higher education and at education associations to try to be more open to change, not to be so wedded to the status quo," he added.
Sara Martinez Tucker, who was also a member of the Spellings Commission before becoming U.S. under secretary of education, said she and other department officials were deeply disappointed that the agency's efforts to pressure accreditors to hold colleges more accountable for student learning had been portrayed as an effort at "federalizing higher education." "We have no interest," she said, in increasing the federal government's role in dictating standards for accreditors or, in turn, for colleges, because "we recognize the uniqueness" of different kinds of institutions.
Eaton of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation, who went head-to-head with Education Department officials on the department's negotiated rule making committee for accreditation, challenged Tucker's characterization, saying she believed that the department very much has tried to impose its own standards for judging quality instead of letting the accreditors and colleges define that together. "We need the federal government to understand the difference between holding higher education accountable for quality versus deciding on its own what quality is," Eaton said. The former is appropriate, the latter is not, she asserted.
But while she was thrust into the role as the lone defender of higher education and accreditation at the AEI's stacked session, Eaton conceded nonetheless that significant change was necessary from within.
"Higher education itself needs to be realistic," Eaton said. "There is a low level of trust in social institutions ... and there are continuing demands for greatly enhanced accountability and transparency. Higher education is going to remain essential and it's likely to remain expensive, and that's going to continue to drive consumer-like behavior and scrutiny about our enterprise. Accreditors need to continue to work on accountability ... and we need it sooner rather than later."
The assault on accreditation and higher education continued during the session's second panel, which focused on potential alternatives to the traditional methods of accreditation. Anne D. Neal, whose as American Council of Trustees and Alumni has blasted the accreditation system in several reports and who now sits on the Education Department's accreditation advisory panel, called for ending the link between accreditation and federal financial aid that gives the accreditors' stamp of approval so much significance.
Jeff Sandefer, an investor who has helped to found an independent M.B.A. program in entrepreneurship, predicted that the "monopoly of regional accreditation is sure to crumble like the Berlin Wall" as college spending and prices continue to rise and students realize that they can get a higher quality and more cost-effective education at institutions that operate outside the traditional higher education structure.
And Miller, the former Spellings Commission chairman, called for an alternative to accreditation in which investors or others interested in creating new forms of higher education would gain the ability to operate (and award federal financial aid) "prospectively," rather than having to wait years to gain an accreditor's imprimatur, which many for-profit and other providers of new higher education institutions argue often comes too late to allow them to succeed.
Eaton said she welcomed the idea of new kinds of accrediting agencies. "Let's compete," she said.