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WASHINGTON -- A proposal is circulating quietly on Capitol Hill to ask accreditors to create a new, more flexible form of approval for new and nontraditional providers of higher education.

The measure, a slight 37 words, contains few details about the new system it envisions. Its odds are long; so far, no lawmakers have volunteered to sponsor it. And its backers are few, albeit potentially influential: Bob Kerrey, the former New School president and Nebraska senator and governor, and Ben Nelson, the founder of the Minerva Project, the for-profit, startup online university with Ivy League-level ambitions. (Kerrey is executive chairman of the Minerva Institute for Research and Scholarship, a fledgling nonprofit established by the Minerva Project.)

Still, the proposal represents a shot across the bow at the traditional system of higher education accreditation, which has been under increasing pressure since the second half of the Bush administration. Margaret Spellings, the former education secretary, tried to take on the system through tighter scrutiny and new regulations, but met opposition in Congress.

Since then, the pressure has only grown. The issue even rose to the State of the Union address in February, when President Obama endorsed an alternative accreditation system based on "performance and results." Accreditation is expected to be a major focus when Congress begins rewriting the Higher Education Act, the law governing federal financial aid programs; last year, the federal panel reviewing accreditors offered its suggestions as to what lawmakers might do.

But Nelson and Kerrey hope Congress will act even sooner to urge accreditors to embrace innovation -- aiming to attach their proposal as an amendment to whatever legislation Congress votes on to resolve the student loan interest rate issue before July 1.

The measure would direct accreditors "to develop an expedited process by which new and innovative institutions that agree to enhanced oversight can earn accreditation prior to enrolling their first students." That approval, as the measure’s proponents imagine it, would not grant access to federal financial aid as full-blown accreditation does, but it would give a stamp of authority to providers before they enroll a single student.

To gain full accreditation, colleges must first be in existence for several years to undergo the rigorous, peer-reviewed process. Accreditors argue that this is necessary so that they can judge not only a college’s plan to educate its students but the effectiveness of that plan in action. But nontraditional providers say the time involved -- as well as what they describe as the clubby nature of accreditation, where already-existing colleges and universities decide who gets to join them -- raises too many barriers to entry. Accreditation, they argue, relies on an “if you build it, they will come” mentality. But without accreditation, they say, many students won’t.

New institutions can already get approval from states to grant degrees and become candidates for accreditation much more quickly than they can get accredited. But the candidacy process varies from accreditor to accreditor, and sets a college on the path to gain access to federal financial aid programs. In some cases, colleges must already have students enrolled to get candidate status. Kerrey and Nelson envision a more flexible system that can take more risks because it doesn't serve as a gatekeeper to federal dollars. "Anybody with a credible plan should effectively get accreditation," Nelson says. And that accreditation should be separate from access to financial aid, which he said could come "years down the road," after an educational program has proven effective.

Some accreditors have warned that their peers move too slowly in a fast-changing environment. Six months ago, Ralph Wolff, president of the senior college commission of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, argued that the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, the federal panel that recommends whether the Education Department should recognize accreditors, paid too little attention to whether accreditors are trying out new and more flexible approaches, even as many in Silicon Valley question the value of a college credential at all.

Uphill Climb

The proposal seems to face long odds. Members of Congress have seemed receptive, Kerrey says, but none have stepped up to sponsor it, and he admits that the immediate challenge of student loan interest rates has overwhelmed other higher education issues. Even if it makes its way into law, Congress can suggest that accreditors create a new form of accreditation, but there's no guarantee that accreditors will listen. (Congress could create another pathway to federal financial aid, bypassing peer-reviewed accreditation entirely, but many expect that would be both a practical and a political challenge.)

But the measure's proponents say it still sends a powerful signal that Congress is paying attention to accreditation. “I think they just need statutory encouragement; I don’t think they need to be beaten over the head and shoulders,” Kerrey says. Regional accreditors, he says, “tend to know more about what’s going on in higher ed than anybody out there because they’re constantly doing the reviews of the incumbents.”

Accreditors have traditionally fiercely resisted federal encroachment into their affairs. Some might be open to creating a provisional status for new programs, but that would be an entirely different process from accreditation, says Judith Eaton, president of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation. 

“If you’re going to attempt to, in some way, sanction in a positive sense, legitimate an institution before it’s operating, which is what this says to me, it’s very, very different from accreditation as we know it,” Eaton says.

Those in favor of the measure say it would give accreditors permission to experiment without putting taxpayer money at risk through financial aid programs. And since many institutions choose to seek accreditation without using it as a gateway to federal financial aid, it proves that accreditors’ approval has other value as a signifier.

“The accrediting community and institutions are paying attention to signals,” says Amy Laitinen, deputy director of higher education at the New America Foundation. “If you have both the president talking about accreditation and Congress talking about accreditation, that sends a pretty clear message that folks aren’t necessarily satisfied with the state of affairs today.”

Another lingering question: Even if Congress passes the measure and accreditors fall in line, who might take advantage of the sort-of-but-not-really accreditation status it would create? Plenty of critics of traditional accreditation — Kerrey and Nelson among them — still add that they found the process valuable for their own colleges. Minerva plans to get its accreditation the old-fashioned way, partnering with an existing college.

Nelson is confident it will encounter few hurdles beyond the usual. “If you're Minerva, frankly, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “We're going to get our accreditation in whatever the pathway the regional accreditors would like. But there are not a lot of companies with our resources, with our standards.”

Despite the hurdles presented by accreditation, Minerva still sees its value, Nelson says. And he’s vague on who might use the new system he envisions if his own provider does not. He mentioned everything from Udacity, the provider of massive open online courses, to CodeAcademy, which offers interactive computer programming lessons.

But Nelson sees no less than the fate of American higher education in the balance. If accreditors can’t adapt and approve new ideas, drawing them into the establishment and the current system, he warns, they risk becoming irrelevant. He points to the chorus in some corners of Silicon Valley, promulgated mostly famously by the PayPal founder Peter Thiel, that a college degree is no longer necessary.

“For the sake of the longevity of the American higher education system, we think they just need to aggressively embrace innovation and innovators, and divorce the barrier to taxpayer funding from the barrier of oversight and accreditation,” Nelson says.

The question is whether Congress will agree. Kerrey, who retired from the Senate in 2000, says he knew little about accreditation until he became president of the New School. Many of his former colleagues in the Senate still aren’t familiar with the process, he says, and he’s had trouble gaining interest in his proposal. “Baseline enthusiasm is still relatively low,” he says.

But the fact that Minerva itself might not struggle to get accreditation, as its supporters assert, isn’t an endorsement of the current system, he says.

“From the standpoint of Minerva, it’s not in their interest to change it,” Kerrey says. “We’re working the process and should get regional accreditation, mostly because of the investments being made. We’re not going to have any difficulty finding a partner. But even that signals there’s something here that isn’t quite right.”

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