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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

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Betsy DeVos issued a proposal Tuesday to loosen federal standards for college accreditors, arguing that the changes would spur innovation.

The education secretary wants to allow colleges to expedite plans to outsource programs and to add new degree offerings or branch campuses without getting an accreditor’s approval. The changes also would make it easier for accreditors who don’t fully meet federal standards to retain their approval.

“With these reforms, our nation’s colleges and universities can spend more time and effort on serving students and less time, energy and money focused on bureaucratic compliance,” she said in a written statement.

Many of those changes delivered on long-standing demands by higher ed groups to streamline the accreditation process. But consumer advocates and other critics have warned that the proposal would unravel oversight of colleges and allow more low-quality programs to enroll students and access federal student aid.

The move also fits the broader agenda of the Trump administration to roll back regulations. DeVos issued proposals last year to raise the bar for defrauded students who are seeking debt cancellation and to repeal the gainful-employment rule for career education programs. The changes to standards for accreditors, the gatekeeping bodies for Title IV federal student aid funds, could have even broader implications for higher ed than those regulatory changes.

“Their intent is to make sure that colleges in particular are not losing accreditation,” said Antoinette Flores, associate director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress.

In April, an appointed panel reached agreement on a number of proposed changes to accreditation standards after a months-long process known as negotiated rule making. During that process, the Trump administration backed off or compromised on some of its most controversial proposals, including provisions that would have shaken up regional accreditation and allowed outsourcing of the entirety of academic programs.

But DeVos and department officials celebrated the consensus reached on proposed changes -- a rare outcome for negotiated rule making -- as a historic win for the administration. Reaching the agreement, she said, "shows that, despite the naysayers, we can work together to rethink higher education, protect students through meaningful accountability, support innovative and diverse educational options, and allow colleges and universities to be more responsive to students’ educational needs and career aspiration."

Before the Trump administration launched the new regulatory process, accreditors had faced years of pressure from lawmakers and the Education Department to pursue tougher oversight of poor-performing colleges. The poster child for many critics became the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), an accreditor of mostly for-profits and a handful of other colleges, which the Obama administration sought to eliminate before DeVos restored its recognition last year.

DeVos argued that pushing more responsibilities onto accreditors had led the agencies to become too risk averse instead of allowing innovative and efficient ways to serve students.

Rewriting the Accreditation Rule Book

The regulatory overhaul would affect both accreditors’ oversight of colleges and the federal standards that accreditors themselves must meet.

The department initially proposed allowing colleges to outsource up to 100 percent of their academic programs to nonaccredited third-party providers, an idea that got little traction in the negotiated rule-making process. Instead, the proposal would allow colleges to outsource up to 50 percent of their programs by getting approval from their accreditor’s staff members within 90 days. Currently, institutions must get approval from the accreditor’s commission, members of which are voted in by member colleges to provide an independent review of decisions. That's a more protracted process than the timeline proposed by the department.

Outsourcing of academic programs has come under greater scrutiny thanks to the growth of online program managers, or OPMs, and the high cost of many degrees offered through those providers.

The proposals also would substantially expand the kinds of changes colleges could make without first getting an accreditor’s approval. Institutions could increase the level of credential offered, for example, or open branch campuses without getting permission first. And those changes could be reviewed later by their accreditor's staff.

Clearance of those kinds of substantive changes, as they are known in accreditation and federal regulation circles, is where accreditors often have exerted their oversight authority, said Beth Stein, vice president of the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS).

The proposals also would allow accreditors to maintain approval even if they don’t meet all federal standards through a new status known as substantial compliance. Those that meet the majority of standards would be reviewed by the Education Department itself rather than the independent commission that oversees accrediting bodies. And the proposal would extend the time limit -- in some cases by as much as four years -- for accreditors to eliminate a college’s recognition when it is out of compliance with standards.

The Education Department estimated the changes could increase costs for the federal Pell Grant program by $3.74 billion over 10 years by increasing the number of programs that are eligible for federal aid.

“The end package was a result of people accommodating some of the department’s desire for change and innovation while still ensuring there were protections in place,” said Jody Feder, director of accountability and regulatory affairs at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “It was definitely a stronger rule than what was initially proposed by the department and that was due to negotiators’ persistence in seeking protections and the department’s willingness to listen to concerns.”

But Flores said the proposed rules give accreditors and colleges the benefit of the doubt at every turn.

“It’s going to be extremely difficult for the department to hold anyone accountable,” she said.

Delivering on Demands of College Lobby

The department launched the regulatory overhaul by consulting recommendations of industry groups like the American Council on Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation as well as bipartisan proposals from a U.S. Senate task force on regulation of higher education, which was made up largely of college presidents.

Those industry groups called for more clear distinctions between the roles of accreditors and other oversight bodies -- the federal government and state authorizers. They also wanted more focused reviews of both colleges and accreditors and sought the elimination of regulatory minutia.

Those themes were reflected in the rationale offered by the department for its proposed overhaul of standards. And more specific changes to accreditation standards proposed by the department aligned with recommendations by higher ed groups.

The Senate task force, for example, said requirements that accreditors approve branch campuses add extra work "with very little benefit gained." The group also argued that rules governing approval of substantive change at colleges was overly broad.

The proposal also included provisions called for by CHEA to require that colleges and accreditors enter arbitration before the filing of any litigation. However, the group said it was concerned by some aspects of the proposed overhaul. For example, Judith Eaton, CHEA's president, in a statement questioned the move to add time for colleges and accreditors to come into compliance.

The proposed standards also include provisions sought by Career Education Colleges and Universities, the for-profit college trade group. One would make companies that purchase colleges responsible for only the most recent year of financial liabilities to the federal government, including borrower-defense claims. Current rules make buyers responsible for all of a college’s financial liabilities. Another change would extend federal student aid for up to 120 days to institutions that have announced plans for closure.

The department will issue final changes to regulations after the conclusion of a 30-day public comment period starting when its proposal is published in the Federal Register.

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