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As recently as three years ago, it seemed unlikely that the existing system of accreditation would survive the next renewal of the Higher Education Act in anything remotely resembling its current form.

From across the political spectrum (right and left) and from various segments of higher education itself (particularly community colleges in California and elite universities across the country), many asserted that the system of peer-reviewed quality control was irretrievably broken and in need of replacement.

In some ways little has changed today. Accreditors still have enemies aplenty, and the twin (and in many ways conflicting) critiques that accreditors go too easy on poorly performing institutions (as asserted by foes of for-profit colleges and in a recent takedown in The Wall Street Journal) and that accreditation is a barrier to innovation (an argument made by President Obama and candidates on the 2016 presidential campaign trail) are not going away.

For all the protestations about accreditation’s limitations, though, a new consensus has emerged, even from tough critics of the system like Kevin Carey of New America Foundation, who sums up the view this way: “No one really likes accreditation but no one knows what else to do.”

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement. But accreditors now perform so many functions -- historical ones like helping institutions improve themselves, plus an ever-growing array of regulatory demands imposed on them by Congress and the Education Department -- that jettisoning them would almost certainly require the federal government to take on a much stronger role in higher education, which most observers see as a distasteful outcome.

What that means is that as politicians and policy makers seek solutions to what they see as the underperformance of American higher education, they are likely to try to supplement and challenge the existing accreditation system -- layering in other ways of trying to measure quality and value in higher education -- rather than replace it.

What Is Accreditation?

Any discussion of accreditation probably requires a quick primer, as accreditation is neither well understood by most people nor simple.

Most generally, accreditation is a process by which groups of postsecondary institutions agree to judge and monitor themselves using a set of commonly agreed-upon standards. There are essentially two types of accreditors: those that judge whole institutions (the regional and national accreditors), and those that judge programs or schools (programmatic or specialized accreditors).

“No one really likes accreditation but no one knows what else to do.”
--Kevin Carey, New America Foundation

The latter group includes coalitions of education or law schools, say, and earning this type of accreditation typically does not qualify students at those schools or programs for federal financial aid programs. Although the work of these accreditors produces some complaints, mostly about burden on institutions and conflict of interest, it is not the main focus of this article.

Most of the public and policy discussion about accreditation revolves around institutional accreditors, of which there are two types: seven regional accreditors and seven national ones. On balance, the regional accreditors are older, having been established in the 19th and early 20th centuries by regional collections of public and private nonprofit colleges. The agencies' initial focus was on improving articulation between secondary schools and colleges, but they quickly began to focus on the institutions' quality more broadly. The national agencies began to spring up in the early 20th century, often created by institutions that felt shut out by the regional agencies.

The indisputable transformative moment in the history of accreditation was in 1952, when the federal government and the accreditors struck a deal in which the government made the regional agencies a key arbiter of whether individual colleges and universities should be eligible to have their students receive federal student aid. (The federal government itself, through the U.S. Education Department's reviews of individual institutions, and state governments are the other part of the three-headed quality assurance process known as the triad.)

The alliance between the feds and the institutional accreditors essentially made the agencies federal subcontractors, imposing a set of requirements on them in exchange for the authority they wielded. That arrangement both elevated the agencies’ importance and turned them, uncomfortably, into a kind of quasi government entity that typically satisfies neither the colleges and universities that are their members nor the government whose approval they must win. "They are damned if they do and damned if they don't," says Peter Ewell, vice president at the National Center for Education Management Systems.

A Decade of Scrutiny

The tension over accreditors has flared occasionally through the years (here's a piece from 1996 called "Accreditation at a Crossroads," about one such conflagration), but the current period of scrutiny -- perhaps the most intense ever -- has its roots a decade ago, when the commission impaneled by then Education Secretary Margaret Spellings made the case that accreditors held the key to fixing the many problems the panel identified as besetting higher education at the time.

Then, as now, there were multiple complaints that largely conflicted with one another. Accreditors vigorously protected the status quo, the panel asserted, making it difficult for new entrants that might shake up higher education to earn approval and, hence, access to federal student aid. (Of course the commission members making the case then were leaders of Kaplan University and Western Governors University, both of which had earned accreditation -- reflecting the reality that accreditors are not always the innovation squelchers they are accused of being.)

The Spellings panel's report also made the case that accreditation process was too burdensome and too opaque.

And, most pointedly for the commission, the agencies spent far too much time focused on processes and "input measures" like faculty credentials and library holdings, and precious little on "performance outcomes, including completion rates and student learning," which it said should be at the core of their assessment of quality.

The Education Department under Spellings undertook an aggressive campaign (by trying to impose new rules on accreditors and toughening its process for recognizing their authority to approve colleges for federal aid) to compel the agencies to pay more attention to student learning and to adopt minimum levels of acceptable performance for institutions.

The pressure from the Bush administration prodded accreditors, in turn, to put significantly more pressure on the colleges they reviewed to ensure that they were paying attention to how much their students learned. In other words, it had some of the intended effects, and is just one example of accreditors changing what they do.

But the administration's campaign to directly compel accreditors to adopt new standards on student learning was stopped in its tracks by lawmakers such as U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican and former secretary of education -- not so much because they adored accreditation, but because they believed the executive branch was using regulatory vehicles to encroach on Congress's authority. This was less a fight over a principle than a turf battle.

The Current Critique

Spellings and Bush couldn't leave office fast enough for most college and university officials, and accreditors surely celebrated, too.

But if they thought the emphasis on outcomes and accountability would leave town with Spellings, they have certainly been disappointed. President Obama has been more supportive of higher education in his spending priorities and his view of its centrality to the economy and society, but his administration has been just as aggressive as its predecessor (if not more so) in using its powers to try to reshape higher education.

The emphases have changed only modestly with the turn of administration. The Spellings commission's core concerns -- access, affordability, quality, accountability and innovation -- remain central today, although the 2008 economic downturn and its aftereffects have largely shifted the discussion about higher education outcomes from one aimed at student learning to a more economy-driven focus on job prospects and student debt.

And many of the problems in higher ed have continued to be laid at the feet of accreditors.

To the extent that consumer advocates and liberal politicians attribute much of the student debt problem to for-profit colleges, they have accused accreditors of doing too little to rein them in. The watershed moment on that front came in 2011, when a Senate hearing purportedly about the excesses of for-profit Bridgepoint Education became (when the company's CEO took a pass on attending) a referendum on the failings of accreditors like the Higher Learning Commission, which had approved the takeover of a small Iowa college from which the fast-growing for-profit company took off.

As well-funded philanthropies like the Lumina Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have persuaded policy makers that higher education is inadequately preparing sufficient numbers of Americans for work and life, they have encouraged the view that accreditors stifle innovative practices (like competency-based learning) and potential alternative providers (coding academies and noninstitutional providers like StraighterLine) that might bolster postsecondary education and training. (Various voices within the U.S. Education Department promulgate both points of view -- accreditors as barriers to innovation, and accreditors as lax enforcers of poor institutions -- at the same time, often confounding officials at the accrediting agencies.)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan in 2010 directed his advisory committee on quality assurance to take a broad look at accreditation's effectiveness in the run-up to the next renewal of the Higher Education Act, which was scheduled for 2013. (And yes, it's 2015 and it still hasn't happened.) The panel held several meetings at which a broad array of alternatives were put forward, with Anne Neal, one of its members and president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, advocating for breaking the link between the accreditors and federal financial aid, ending their role as federal quality assurers and letting them focus instead on their original mission of institutional improvement.

Documents supporting President Obama's 2013 State of the Union speech -- perhaps the first ever to mention accreditation -- said he would "call on Congress to consider value, affordability and student outcomes in making determinations about which colleges and universities receive access to federal student aid, either by incorporating measures of value and affordability into the existing accreditation system or by establishing a new, alternative system of accreditation that would provide pathways for higher education models and colleges to receive federal student aid based on performance and results."

Two presidential candidates, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Democrat Hillary Clinton, have talked about accreditation on the campaign trail, with Rubio famously referring to the system as a "cartel" that he wanted to "bust."

It is not as if accreditors are taking heat only from politicians and others outside the academy; many college leaders complain that the agencies penalize them too often or impose too many burdens on them.

California's community colleges have been at odds for years with the regional accreditor who oversees them, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, with the state's community college system going so far as to call last week for them to part ways. And officials at some of the country's most elite universities, led by Princeton University, have publicly said that the accreditation system has little to offer institutions like theirs, which they have characterized as needing relatively limited oversight. (The recent academic integrity scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has led more than a few people to question whether elite institutions are truly immune from the need for quality assurance.)

"What's been interesting to me is that so many different people are unhappy about" accreditation, says Ben Miller, an analyst at the Center for American Progress who formerly worked at the Education Department. "You've got people on the left unhappy from a consumer standpoint, the whole 'standing in the way of innovation' argument from the right and the most powerful colleges in the middle, largely annoyed. That's quite a feat to pull off."

The Search for Something Better

So with all those perceived flaws in accreditation, surely the country can come up with a better approach, right?

Not necessarily, says Lamar Alexander, who heads the Senate's higher education panel.

"I have had a hard time thinking about another way to do this," the Tennessee senator said at a June hearing about accreditation. "If accreditors don't do it, I can assure you the Congress can't, and the Department of Education I don't believe has the capacity or the knowhow. It could hire 1,000 bureaucrats to run around the country reviewing 6,000 colleges, but you can imagine what that would look like."

Like many observers, Alexander largely dismisses the idea of replacing accreditation not out of deep warmth for the job accreditors do, but for lack of an alternative. The agencies are now held responsible for monitoring so many things -- and lawmakers stand ready to add items to their lists, such as colleges' sexual assault policies and student debt burdens -- that multiple someone elses would likely have to be created to fill the shoes of the accreditors.

And virtually any true replacement for accreditors' gatekeeping function for federal student aid would either require the federal government to spend a lot more money than it now does in supporting the work of the accreditors (virtually zero) or have the Education Department take on the role itself, immersing the federal agency much more directly in judging the performance of colleges and universities than it already is.

(Another replacement favored by U.S. Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, would let the states serve as accreditors for federal financial aid purposes as well as licensing bodies. But the states' own record of quality assurance in higher education is spotty, which was partly what prompted the Obama administration to recently try to toughen state authorization procedures.)

"But one way or the other, I think the accreditors' role is going to change, in ways that take us away from some of our current practices."
--Judith Eaton, Council for Higher Education Accreditation

That, in some ways, is what the Obama administration just tried to do in its failed effort to create a federal rating system. That effort -- promoted personally by President Obama, driven in part by his frustration at his own family's student loan debt -- collapsed of its own weight this summer, and the department is preparing instead to release a system aimed at giving consumers better information about colleges' performance, without judgments.

What Comes Next?

If replacing accreditation with something else -- "blowing it up" -- isn't viable, is the status quo likely?

Not exactly.

While that effort fell short, it points the way to what most observers see as the likeliest scenario going forward: multiple efforts to find other ways to hold institutions accountable, which may supplement both accreditation and the government's other existing quality assurance tools and, possibly, force the accreditors to better compete and change.

The Education Department is deep in discussions about creating an experimental program that would provide federal aid eligibility -- as an alternative to accreditation -- to partnerships between accredited colleges and alternative providers, such as job skills boot camps, coding academies and MOOC providers. That could lay the groundwork for a true alternative accrediting agency that would grant federal approval to the kinds of emergent education and training providers that Rubio and even President Obama have said are dismissed or dissuaded by traditional accreditors.

Carey, of New America, cites that as one kind of "additional architecture" that could be layered onto the existing system of federal, state and accreditor oversight to strengthen the entire accountability system -- and ultimately diminish the relevance of traditional accreditation. That gradual approach of creating alternatives to deal with new segments or new problems "gets you around having a big fight that's hard to win," Carey says.

"I do think there is still a strong desire for alternatives, but nobody's been able to concretely articulate what that might be," says Miller of the Center for American Progress. "It's clear we do not have the processes, structures, entities to replace the accreditation system tomorrow, and we probably won't in two years. But if you extend that time frame, and encourage experimentation in the space, the outlook changes a little bit."

Neither Carey nor Miller says he is a fan of accreditation, but supporters of the enterprise see similar scenarios as possible. Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which represents colleges on accreditation issues, believes that the increasing push by federal officials (of both parties) to "tie accreditation status more closely and explicitly to evidence of institutional performance" will, in one way or another, put pressure on accreditors to move in that direction.

That pressure could come in the form of direct federal attempts to create a "different path" to federal aid based on performance indicators (as the Obama administration has done with its gainful employment regime, and tried to do with its ratings system), or less drastically, to just demand that accreditors adopt more "bright line" indicators of performance.

"But one way or the other," she says, "I think the accreditors' role is going to change, in ways that take us away from some of our current practices."

It wouldn't be the first time. In fact, the history of accreditation is that it has changed, as even most of its critics will admit.

The change has not usually come fast enough to satisfy those bashing them, but there is a track record: the increased attention about learning outcomes in the Spellings era, the crackdown on purchases of accreditation by for-profit companies in the late 2000s, the greater transparency exhibited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges senior commission, and the recent collaboration by the seven regional accreditors in crafting statements on common language and competency-based education.

"They really are being responsive to some of these public concerns," says Ewell of NCHEMS.

"The spotlight that has been on the integrity of higher education generally has prompted at least some of the accreditors to be more rigorous," says Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and, as a top higher ed official in the Obama administration's first term, a tough critic of accreditors' ability to prevent abuses. "But we've seen the story before -- when the attention and spotlight are gone, will we see a weakening of the oversight?"

Ralph Wolff, who as president of the Western accreditor's senior college commission from 1996 to 2013 pursued significant changes, said he and his (now former) accrediting colleagues have "not fundamentally changed" or responded aggressively enough. "Accrediting agencies should be more transparent and far more proactive on the completion agenda," he says. The issue raised by the Education Department in its rating system and The Wall Street Journal articles on institutions that graduate few students demand more action.

For their part, leaders of the accrediting agencies have no illusions about the situation they're in. At a meeting last week of the Council for Regional Accrediting Commissions, officials of the agencies repeatedly expressed frustration at the conflicting messages they receive ("get tougher," "back off or we'll sue," "stop blocking innovation") from their various masters -- Congress, the Education Department, their college and university members.

But they also discussed the additional ways they might work together, a partial response to the oft-made assertion that having colleges accredited regionally in an era when geographic boundaries matter less and less makes little sense.

Most of the agencies' leaders pushed back against the idea of having one common set of standards for all of them, mostly because the process of debating and drafting the standards within a region every few years "helps to develop a feeling of ownership and buy-in" from each accreditor's member colleges, says Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges higher education commission.

But whether it's working more closely together or making other changes that respond to the growing demands and pressures on them, "we have to change, and we are," says Mary Ellen Petrisko, who succeeded Wolff as president of the WASC senior college commission. "We need to be really careful dismissing anything out of hand, or being defensive. When you're defensive, you're closed, and that's dangerous."

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