ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- About two-thirds of the way through the first day of the Education Department's two-day forum  on higher education accreditation, something strange happened: a new idea emerged.
Not that the conversation that preceded it was lacking in quality and thoughtfulness. The discussion about higher education's system of quality assurance included some of the sharper minds and best analysts around, and it unfolded at a level that was quite a bit higher than you'd find at, say, the typical Congressional hearing.
The discussion in a hotel conference room outside Washington was designed to help the members of the Education Department's National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity understand the accreditation system, so it included a wide range of voices talking about many aspects of quality, regulation and oversight in higher education. The exchanges served largely to revisit history and frame the issues in a way that probably seemed familiar, at least to those who follow accreditation closely.
The basic gist on which there was general agreement:
- Higher education accreditation is imperfect (seriously so, in the eyes of some), with many commentators citing how rarely the agencies punish colleges and how inscrutable and mysterious their process is to the public.
- Politicians and regulators are asking accrediting agencies to do things they were never intended to do, like make sure colleges don't defraud students.
- Despite those flaws, most seemed less than eager to try to create a wholly different system to assure the quality of America's colleges and universities, because they see it as either difficult or undesirable.
Yet given Education Secretary Arne Duncan's formal charge  to the newly reconstituted panel, which was distributed at its first formal meeting  in December, most of the higher education and accreditation officials who attended the policy forum said they had little doubt that the panel is strongly inclined to recommend significant changes, rather than just ruminating about how well the system is working.
And if the early part of the meeting was short on specific ideas about meaningful changes the panel might suggest to Duncan, things heated up as the afternoon wore on. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most outside-the-box idea came from Kevin Carey of Education Sector, who is among the more innovative thinkers about higher education policy today.
In his presentation, Carey argued that accreditors lacked the expertise and capacity to assess the quality and legitimacy of complex for-profit higher education companies, as federal regulators -- with their growing concerns about commercial colleges  -- have increasingly looked to the agencies to do. "The existing accreditation system was not designed to accommodate [large, nationwide, publicly traded college companies], and it would be a mistake to try to bend and warp the present system to do so," Carey said.
Instead, "I would call on the accreditation community to work with for-profit colleges and policy makers to develop a new federal regulatory apparatus responsible for consumer protection and quality control in the for-profit sector," Carey said. "When Uncle Sam provides or guarantees 9 out of every 10 dollars -- or more -- that flow into the coffers of large private sector corporations, the federal government must play a far stronger role in managing that process than it does today."
Carey's proposal, which drew predictable pushback from the presidents of the University of Phoenix and Keiser University, who sit on the Education Department advisory panel, contained a second element that echoed arguments by several other speakers that accreditors focus far too much on setting minimum standards and too little on prodding colleges to be excellent, especially in ensuring that their students are learning.
He suggested that accrediting agencies apply two levels of scrutiny to the institutions and programs they review -- one ensuring that they meet a minimum level of financial stability and academic quality, and a second, tougher level of scrutiny using "strong, aspirational standards of knowledge, skills and progress that only the most successful institutions can claim."
Colleges would need to pass muster in the first review to gain the accreditor's stamp of approval to award federal financial aid to their students, Carey said. (In his proposed scenario, accreditors would remain gatekeepers for federal aid for nonprofit colleges.) The second review, he said, would allow accreditors to truly differentiate among institutions of varying quality based on a set of specific outcomes, rather than allowing all institutions to assert "monolithic accreditation status.... This would in many ways return accreditation to its core strength in peer-driven standard setting and start to free it from the role as the federal government's proxy guarantor of quality, a role for which it is increasingly ill-suited."
Differentiation and Separation
While Carey's proposal was more specific and unconventional than most, he was far from alone in raising the theme that accreditors needed to better differentiate their roles and activities. There was widespread agreement among many speakers that the agencies have struggled to balance their two clear and often conflicting roles: the original one, in which groups of colleges set standards by which they voluntarily agree to judge one another's quality, and the "gatekeeping" role in which the federal government essentially subcontracts with the accreditors to gauge which institutions are of sufficient quality to award federal financial aid to their students.
"There is an uneasy tension between the historic purposes [of accreditation] and the gatekeeping functions it has assumed over the years," said Susan Hattan, a consultant for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, who spoke on behalf of her group.
The latter arrangement, which was born in the 1950s, has led the federal government to look to accreditors as a primary tool for ensuring the quality and, increasingly, the integrity of colleges and universities, and those accountability demands have led federal regulators -- when they are dissatisfied with the performance of higher education -- to push accreditors in ways that make many of them uncomfortable.
In recent years, for instance, the Education Department has pushed accreditors (in the process it uses to formally recognize the authority of accreditors to give colleges the federal seal of approval) to compel the colleges they review to better measure and report how successfully their students learn. That has led to complaints from accreditors and colleges alike that the government is "becoming more and more engaged in the day-to-day operation of accreditation and increasingly involved in judging how institutions are to be accredited," said Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
The tension has prompted some critics, like Anne Neal of the American Council for Trustees and Alumni (and another member of the Education Department's advisory panel on accreditation), to call for breaking the link  between the federal government and the accreditors, instead replacing it with tougher federal financial audits of colleges and greater transparency by institutions about their outcomes.
But while a few of the people who spoke at Thursday's meeting shared Neal's belief that accreditation is broken and in need of a complete overhaul -- Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers described the accreditation system as a "racket" filled with self-dealing and too-low standards -- most of those who joined the day's parade of criticism urged the Education Department panel to proceed cautiously.
"Many well-intended actors, such as the honorable members of this panel, might be tempted to consider imposing an external accountability system that imposes [a common set of] standards" on colleges, said Richard Arum, the New York University sociologist whose recent book, Academically Adrift, has fed criticism that accreditors have enabled academic underperformance by many colleges and students. But "such a system would be ill-advised at this time," Arum argued.
David A. Longanecker, executive director of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, shared Carey's view that "the pass/fail nature of a process in which everybody passes" undercuts the credibility of accreditation, and that accreditors needed to adopt a stronger set of outcome measures to better fulfill the "quality assurance" function that politicians are demanding that the agencies play.
But to those who might argue that that role would be better turned back to the federal government or to some party other than accreditors, Longanecker demurred. "Accreditation is still our best bet as the voluntary system that it is today," he said.
Even arguably the day's toughest critic of accreditation, Nassirian, agreed. "Just about the only worse way of doing things," he said, "would be to adopt governmental recognition as an alternative."