Can Higher Education Regulate Itself?

September 23, 2008

Colleges and accrediting agencies dodged a bullet this summer as Congress, enacting legislation to renew the Higher Education Act, shielded higher education from the U.S. Education Department's efforts to step up federal regulation of how accreditors and, by extension, colleges ensure that students are learning. The legislation barred the education secretary from issuing regulations to dictate accreditors' standards on student learning outcomes.

But as an aide to academe's chief Congressional defender, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), warned in June, college leaders shouldn't let themselves think that the shooting has stopped. Congress will next renew the Higher Education Act in five years, David Cleary told a group of college and accrediting officials this summer, and in "the absence of good answers" between now and then about how higher education can prove (and, where lacking, improve) its effectiveness, increased federal intervention is sure to follow.

To try to jumpstart that conversation, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation on Monday held the first of what it envisions will be a series of national forums about the future of higher education self-regulation. Numerous critics from outside higher education have expressed doubt that the higher education industry, through the peer-review-based system of accreditation, can effectively regulate its own quality and effectiveness, given that accrediting agencies are governed by the institutions being scrutinized.

But Monday's discussion was designed, CHEA officials said, not to beat that drum but to brainstorm about what higher education officials must do to ensure that self-regulation survives. "We need to marshal ammunition we could use to defend the system of self-regulation," said A. Lee Fritschler, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and former college president and U.S. assistant secretary for postsecondary education,

"I feel like I am singing to the choir in this room," Molly C. Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said at the start of remarks in which she, like virtually all the speakers, made clear a preference to limit further federal incursion into higher education quality control.

Broad was not alone in noting the irony that this discussion about the appropriate level of federal regulation and involvement was occurring in the shadow of one of the biggest federal interventions in history, on Wall Street. "Self-regulation in this environment seems almost quaint," she said, "when so much of our nation is being subjected to very significant government intervention and regulation."

While the speakers were united in their desire to preserve accreditation as the preferred method of ensuring that colleges and universities are providing a quality education, they differed in the extent to which they believed higher education leaders had adequately made that case so far, and how serious the problems are that have led the Education Department and others to call for a stronger federal role.

Fritschler vigorously defended the importance of self-regulation and questioned the legitimacy of arguments that change is necessary because higher education has slipped significantly. "I keep hearing, 'The public is really angry at higher education and wants us to be more accountable'.... Could you be a little more specific?" Fritschler said. "What's the problem that we're trying to cure by these proposals we've seen" for more federal oversight and tougher standards for student learning outcomes?

Along those same lines, Barbara Beno, president of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, complained that many of the calls for more government oversight of higher education have been politically motivated. "We've had lots of arguments and criticism [of higher education and accreditation] without very much data or evidence behind it," she said.

Even as other speakers agreed that the temptation to increase direct federal oversight of accreditation and higher education was ill-conceived, they were more accepting of the notion that colleges have brought much of the criticism behind that temptation on themselves, and that much of the scrutiny was deserved.

Mark L. Pelesh, executive vice president at Corinthian Colleges, Inc., offered a historical review that laid bare the longstanding tensions in the relationship between higher education and the government, and the extent to which accrediting agencies are frequently caught in the middle, because the federal government essentially depends on their judgments of which colleges are worthy of receiving federal financial aid. "Accrediting agencies are the buffer, and what happens to buffers? They get buffeted," he said.

At a time when the price of higher education is escalating rapidly and the U.S. place in the international educational and economic hierarchy is declining, Pelesh said, it can hardly be surprising that accrediting agencies are increasingly being asked hard questions about whether they are doing enough to ensure that the colleges they oversee are performing. With the government spending $83 billion a year on financial aid, he said, "people are looking for some sort of assurance of the value proposition that institutions are providing, and accreditors will be looked to to provide that assurance."

Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said that institutions and accreditors are doing much more to improve their students' learning outcomes than they get credit for -- but "doing it quietly and invisibly." Still, she gave the audience updated data on a survey her group did last year on employers' perceptions of the skills of the college graduates they hire. "They gave them a resounding D -- not failing, but barely passing," she said, suggesting that it was not surprising that policy makers were troubled by results like that.

While accrediting agencies and colleges may have won a reprieve from additional federal intrusion in the just-passed Higher Education Act legislation, the timeout won't last long, said Elise Scanlon, executive director of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology. "The more we voluntarily attach some rigor and substance to the accreditation process, the less need there will be for the federal government to encroach on the aspects of federal recognition that for the moment are less intrusive than they might be," she said.

Given that this was the first of what are expected to be multiple discussions in the coming months, most of the participants in the CHEA forum said they did not have clear conceptions of how accreditation and higher education might change to satisfy the calls to better justify their performance.

But on several occasions, members of the accreditation council's board hinted that they might favor a change in how higher education is regulated. Right now there are overlapping processes through which many accrediting agencies seek recognition from both the Education Department and from CHEA, which in addition to recognizing accreditors strongly advocates for the right of colleges to regulate their own academic quality. Might it be possible instead, they wondered, to create a system in which CHEA was responsible for certifying that accrediting agencies were ensuring the quality and continuing improvement of colleges, and the Education Department focused solely on ensuring that accreditors and colleges operate with financial integrity?

Given the skepticism with which the Bush administration has viewed the current system of higher education accreditation, it is hard to imagine that this Education Department, at least, would go along with a change that ceded authority the government now has to a system run of, by and for colleges. Although several Education Department officials were in the audience Monday, taking copious notes, they were not in a position to comment on the possibility of bifurcating the current regulation process.

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