Feds Plan Accreditation Experimentation

Key Education Department official says innovators in higher ed should not be held back by their accreditors.

June 20, 2018
 
Diane Auer Jones

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Education is preparing to take a “deep dive” into accreditation, Diane Auer Jones, a special adviser to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, said Tuesday.

Speaking at a University Professional and Continuing Education Association conference, Jones said that current regulations are hampering colleges’ efforts to offer non-degree-level credentials.

“What we hear from both faculty and employers is that [accreditation] is always going to hold innovation back,” said Jones.

The department announced earlier this year that it is planning to amend federal rules related to accrediting agencies and accreditation procedures through negotiated rule making.

Notice of the public hearings for this process will come out in the Federal Register this summer, said Jones. “We take these public hearings very seriously, and we want you to come to these hearings with ideas,” she said.

Jones said she wants to understand what’s working in accreditation, as well as areas “where we have created a behemoth monstrosity of bureaucracy that is unnecessary.”

“Accreditation has to change to allow institutions to be more nimble,” said Jones. Not everyone needs a degree to get the job they want, and non-degree-level credentials can play an important role in training the work force. But to allow innovation in this space, “we have to make some policy changes in thinking about how we distribute aid, how we count outcomes, how we follow a student’s progress,” said Jones.

Ideas that push the boundaries of accreditation are welcomed, even if this entails some risk (which would be carefully monitored), said Jones. She suggested that some federal funding might be put toward such experiments, so that participants don't have to worry about paying "millions of dollars back" if an experiment doesn’t work out.

“I always want to be careful to direct our funding to the best ideas,” said Jones. “But not everything is going to work, that’s just how it goes.”

Referencing EQUIP -- an ongoing experiment begun during the Obama years to give nontraditional providers access to federal financial aid (which has somewhat stalled) -- Jones said she expects there will be insights that the department can glean from the program, but stressed “we have to come up with other ideas.”

Among other things, the EQUIP program represents a departure from the 50 percent rule, which says that no more than half of a degree program can be delivered by a nonaccredited provider. But EQUIP was just “dipping a toe in the water,” said Jones.

Department officials keep hearing two concerns about accreditation, Jones said. The first issue is that community colleges “want to do something innovative” with non-degree-level credentials but can “only do it on the noncredit side because of accreditation,” said Jones. The second is that accreditors are “really into credential inflation,” said Jones.

“We don’t normally hear of [credential inflation] being driven by employers,” said Jones. Taking a credential and turning it into a master’s degree, “just because a bunch of people teaching the program want it to be,” isn’t necessarily what employers and employees want, she said.

What employers want is a key concern for Jones. She spoke favorably about apprenticeships during the UPCEA session, adding that many employers have been reliant on degrees that are “maybe not appropriate or necessary” for “too long,” said Jones.

“We have millennials who are very interested in new ways of thinking, we have parents who are worried about costs and we have lots of jobs in the sector that have not been historically reliant on the four-year degree,” said Jones. “So here’s our moment.”

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