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WASHINGTON -- The drumbeat of support for changing the U.S. accreditation system has played out here in recent months and years in many realms; it’s playing out at Congressional hearings, in the Obama White House, and at think-tank panel discussions. Accreditation, in the eyes of reformers, needs to change to put higher education on a path of booming innovation that will expand access and lower costs.

But for the accrediting agencies and their supporters, a push to overhaul accreditation is a fundamental threat to what they see as an important system of peer review that promotes and protects quality in higher education -- and already promotes a fair amount of innovation.

Regardless, the longstanding debates over the proper role of accreditation have reached a fever pitch, demanding action from within the accreditation world sooner rather than later. 

That was an overarching theme here this week at the Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s annual meeting, where several speakers said it’s time for accreditors to either engage with policy makers on accreditation changes to the Higher Education Act -- or else have the terms of that debate be defined for them.

“We think there are definitely going to be some significant changes” to accreditation when Congress drafts a new version of the Higher Education Act, CHEA President Judith S. Eaton told conference attendees Wednesday.

Susan D. Phillips, the provost of the State University of New York at Albany who chairs the federal panel that advises the Education Department on whether accreditors are following federal rules, said that the “loudest and most persuasive voices today are talking about affordability” in the context of accreditation.

Phillips said that accreditors need to tackle the affordability issue head-on and answer the question of “what happens if you try to marry quality and cost” and to “find a relationship between affordability and quality that works best, and which would be better than being cornered into a shotgun wedding.”

“There is not time to waste,” she said Wednesday, calling on accreditors and their supporters to “organize and act.”

Phillips’s sense of urgency was only heightened, she said, by remarks at the conference earlier in the day by Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate education committee. Harkin said that his goal was to produce a draft of legislation to renew the Higher Education Act by the end of June

Harkin told accreditors at the conference Wednesday that they need to do more to create public awareness and prove their effectiveness.

Changing accreditation is one way Harkin wants to achieve his goal of promoting accountability for colleges in the Higher Education Act, he told reporters later Wednesday in laying out his committee’s agenda for the rest of 2014. (He said reauthorization of HEA is a priority for his final year in office, naming it after his top goals of passing a minimum wage hike, reauthorizing the Workforce Investment Act, and pushing legislation on early childhood learning.)

“You want to get good accreditation so that you have to be accountable for how long it takes a student to go through, what your success rate is, how transparent you are to people who are coming to that school, which information you give out on that,” he told reporters. “That’s the kind of accountability I’m looking at.”

But the push to do something to change the accreditation system crosses party lines in Congress.

Speaking by video message to the conference on Tuesday, Rep. Virginia Foxx, a top Republican on the House education committee, railed against “overreaching regulations” in higher education -- a message warmly embraced in the room by accrediting agencies and institutions that complain of the regulatory burden from the federal government.

Foxx is perhaps viewed by accreditors as a more reliable ally on Capitol Hill because of her push to lighten that burden. But Foxx also suggested changes for accreditation in the upcoming Higher Education Act reauthorization.

“We need to find ways to streamline the accreditation process to open up higher education to more innovative, cost-cutting teaching methods, and of course we must always focus on the broader economic growth,” she said.

Another refrain for accreditors at the conference appeared to be: we’re misunderstood by our critics, especially those on Capitol Hill, who are ill-informed of what we do and the value we provide. 

Andrew P. Kelly, who, as director of the American Enterprise Institute’s higher education center, is a well-informed critic of accreditation, conceded in remarks to the group that some of the rhetoric criticizing accreditation may be overblown.

Accreditation has become the “bogeyman,” especially in the Washington think-tank world, and has become the catchall complaint for a wide range of problems in higher education, he told conference attendees Wednesday. But, he said, the current system is still laced with problems, citing as one example accreditation's binary function as a gatekeeper of federal student aid funds: institutions are either accredited and can receive federal money, or they are not accredited and ineligible for that aid. Such a system makes some colleges effectively too big (or rather, politically powerful) to fail when they should, in fact, be shuttered, he said. 

Although not going nearly as far as Kelly in calling for an overhaul of accreditation, a range of other CHEA conference attendees and speakers discussed in various panels ways that accreditation should and might change. The conference, notably, featured an entire session on accreditation issues surrounding competency-based education.

In his presentation surveying the benefits and popular critiques of accreditation, Paul L. Gaston, former provost of Kent State University where he is currently Trustees Professor, mounted a defense of accreditation but also outlined the need for changes. Gaston, who is also the author of a new book, Higher Education Accreditation: How It's Changing, Why it Must, said that accreditation is a beneficial force in higher education despite its challenges. He drew a comparison between his view on accreditation and how Winston Churchill famously observed the imperfections of democracy. 

“Accreditation in its present form may be the worst possible form of quality assurance,” read his concluding slide. “Except of course for all the other forms that might replace it.”

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