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WASHINGTON -- In President Obama’s few sentences about higher education in the State of the Union address Tuesday night, there might have been a presidential precedent set: the first allusion to postsecondary accreditation in the landmark annual address to Congress.

In a domestic policy blueprint that accompanied the speech, Obama called for major changes to the nation’s system of accreditation -- changes that could upend the current system and provide a pathway for federal financial aid for competency-based learning, massive open online courses and other innovations. Obama called on Congress to either require existing accreditors to take value and quality into account when giving colleges their stamp of approval, or to create a new alternative system of accreditation that would bypass the old gatekeepers.

It’s that second possibility -- a route to federal financial aid that doesn’t pass through traditional accreditors -- that many, particularly those who favor new approaches to credit, found most intriguing. (And they blogged and columned and tweeted up a storm of enthusiasm as a result.) Such a system could open federal student aid to programs that give students credit based on prior learning or exams to prove competency.

Less clear is whether the White House and Education Department have a plan for what an alternative to accreditation might look like. Whether they do might determine whether the idea will stagnate as a few sentences in a presidential address -- the fate of many of last year’s higher education proposals, and those of States of the Union past -- or produce tangible policy changes. 

“I think it’s a pretty big signal of where they want to go,” said Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation and a former Education Department policy analyst. “I don’t think that’s the kind of thing you can just drop in a fact sheet and not go anywhere with it."

Laitinen, like other policy experts and observers here, said she didn’t know exactly what those next steps would be. What appeared clear Wednesday was that conversations about prior learning assessment, competency-based learning and other new models had been elevated to the year’s most-watched domestic policy address -- and that many who favor those changes saw it as a transformative proposal.

Traditional accreditors, meanwhile, urged caution on both reading too much into the few sentences in the White House plan and in rushing any changes to the accreditation system.

MOOCs might have more hype, but many see competency-based learning -- awarding credit based on what students have learned, rather than the amount of time spent in a college class -- as a potentially far more significant game-changer for higher education.

Last fall, a regional accreditor approved a $5,000 competency-based associate degree at Southern New Hampshire University. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation -- the two nonprofit (but very wealthy) engines behind an increasing amount of higher education policy and innovation -- have facilitated the development of competency-based programs. And the Education Department has shown growing interest in these developments, although the department has not provided long-promised regulatory guidance clarifying its stance on competency-based programs and their eligibility for federal aid. (The enthusiasm among some federal officials is tempered by concerns among others about potential abuse of federal aid, as one person's "innovation" can be another's invitation to fraud.) 

Policy experts and observers speculated that those ongoing conversations, and the possibility that new models could drive down costs, were what led the White House to include accreditation in its plans.

There were plenty of contributing factors, they said: The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, which makes recommendations on whether the Education Department should recognize accreditors, issued a report in June that -- while it called for preserving the accreditation system -- opened the door to considering changes. In September, the Education Department hosted a panel on higher education innovation. And policy researchers, entrepreneurs, college presidents and others have met with the department to discuss the questions surrounding competency-based learning and other forms of credit not based on the credit hour.

"Raising the possibility of a new pathway to accreditation is a very serious shot across the bow to the existing accreditation establishment," said Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire, which successfully sought accreditation for a competency-based degree. "If not exactly a call for the incumbents to re-invent themselves, it is certainly an explicit call to accommodate new innovative delivery models."

Andrew Kelly, a policy researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, suggested that a new quality assurance body -- either within the Education Department or outside it -- could gain recognition as an accreditor, essentially providing a nontraditional option. That might be easier than changing the existing accreditation process, he said, setting up an alternative that could be the accreditation equivalent of a charter school -- a system existing in tandem with older, more established practices, rather than overriding it. 

One nongovernmental player that could play a larger role in overseeing the quality of emerging models is the American Council on Education (ACE). The Beltway-based umbrella group for higher education has been expanding its longstanding credit recommendation service, which assesses corporate and military training programs for prior learning credit. Last week the council deemed five MOOCs from Coursera worthy of credit, meaning that students who complete those courses successfully could qualify for credit at colleges that accept ACE's recommendations.

For regional accreditors, a new national body could be a direct threat to the peer-reviewed system that has determined educational quality and financial aid eligibility for decades. Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, cautioned against reading too much into Tuesday night’s speech, but said if the government were to establish an alternative accreditation system, it would create “a great deal of concern.”

“The federal government has responsibility and a good deal of authority in the area of financing higher education,” Eaton said. “Actual judgments about academic quality, we have consistently maintained, best come from the academic community.”

Ralph Wolff, president of the senior college commission of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, a regional accreditor, argued in December that “the whole meaning of credentials is at stake” and said the Education Department needed to develop more coherent policies for how accreditors should approach those innovations.

“As we’re moving into this new world, we need to be looking at quicker and more effective and more outcomes-based recognition,” Wolff said Wednesday. But, he said, “I’d want to be very careful that the federal government not be deciding that.”

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