The higher education establishment has heard it from all sides in recent years -- from friend and foe, and from inside and outside of the walls of academe. The essential message: Fix the accreditation system that is the main gatekeeper for colleges to gain access to federal financial aid funds, or someone (read: government) will do it for you.
"The challenge for schools is to convince Congress ... and the administration that the conversation [about rethinking the system of quality control] is ongoing and that there are results from that conversation," a senior aide to Sen. Lamar Alexander told a higher education group  three years ago, saying college leaders had a "five-year window" in which to work.
"The existing accreditation system has neither ensured quality nor ferreted out fraud," Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and a frequent accreditation critic, wrote on Inside Higher Ed  last year. "If Congress truly wants to protect the public interest, it needs to create a system that ensures real accountability."
"National and regional accreditors’ ability to judge quality is under the microscope.... [W]e cannot lay low and hope that the glare of the spotlight will eventually fall on others," Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said in a speech last spring to a regional accrediting body. "If we fail to act, it is likely that change will be imposed upon us, with potentially serious consequences for the governance structure that has allowed the United States to develop the best, most inclusive" higher education system in the world.
The scrutiny of accreditation has only increased since then. Leaders of Senate Democrats' harsh critique of for-profit higher education have implicated accreditors as flawed overseers if not enablers. And the Obama administration has asked its federal advisory panel on accreditation for ideas about how to reconfigure the current regulatory system  to strengthen both quality assurance and consumer protection, possibly toward proposals that could be put into legislative form when the Higher Education Act, the main federal law governing college programs, is next reviewed in 2013 .
So with all of that potential danger lurking, what to do -- and who should do it? The cynical answer might be to do what higher education leaders typically do: create a committee. That is indeed what Broad and the American Council on Education have done, creating the National Task Force on Institutional Accreditation, a panel of college presidents, accrediting agency heads and others that will hold its first meeting this month.
Easy as it might be to be cynical, creating a committee -- with a wide range of voices from a wide range of perspectives -- is the only logical way to attack a problem as complex and important as trying to fix accreditation, said Broad.
"We were trying to be sure we could get our arms around all the key people who have important and legitimate roles to play in this," she explained. The group includes not just a collection of presidents and chancellors of all types of colleges -- public and private, nonprofit and for-profit, two-year and four-year -- but accrediting agency officials, experts on accreditation, and one faculty leader, among others. The panel will also solicit and receive advice from outside analysts and experts. The focus is very much on regional accreditation of institutions, rather than accreditation of programs.
Given the vexing issues the panel plans to discuss -- concerns about the expanding sums of federal financial aid, the quality and extent of student learning, the rigor of state and federal consumer protection, and the many new business models for higher education providers -- finding solutions is "going to be a very tough assignment," Broad conceded. Her hope is that the panel produces a "report with wide support and actionable recommendations" within 18 months.
And the price of failure? "Accreditation as we have known it has both helped to bring about the diversity that has been a hallmark of American higher education, and a very important protector and buffer for our institutions from inappropriate government regulation and legislation," Broad said, emphasizing that she believes some government regulation is wholly appropriate.
"If we fail to step up to addressing reforms, then I think it is virtually inevitable that in the interests of the larger public, we will see greater use of [government] regulations and legislation to impose reforms. The risk there is greatest because of the push toward standardization that inevitably occurs when you write regulations," she said.
"Our goal here," Broad added, "is to see how much of this reform we can reach agreement on and do by ourselves, and to ourselves."
The panel's members, in addition to Broad, are:
- Edward Ayers, president, University of Richmond (chair)
- Robert Berdahl, president, Association of American Universities (chair)
- Michael Brintnall, executive director, American Political Science Association
- Barbara Brittingham, president, New England Association of Schools & Colleges
- John Casteen III, president emeritus, University of Virginia
- Carol Christ, president, Smith College
- Dario Cortes, president, Berkeley College
- Judith Eaton, president, Council on Higher Education Accreditation
- Christopher Eisgruber, provost, Princeton University
- Rodney Erickson, executive vice president & provost, Pennsylvania State University
- Peter Ewell, vice president, National Center for Higher Education Management Systems
- Mary Fifield, president, Bunker Hill Community College
- Bobby Fong, president, Butler University
- Barbara Gitenstein, president, the College of New Jersey
- Frank Gornick, chancellor, West Hills Community College District
- Stanley Ikenberry, co-principal investigator, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment
- Sylvia Manning, president, Higher Learning Commission, North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
- Patricia McGuire, president, Trinity University of D.C.
- Charlie Nelms, chancellor, North Carolina Central University
- George Pernsteiner, chancellor, Oregon University System
- Mohammad Qayoumi, president, California State University, East Bay
- Gary Rhoades, general secretary, American Association of University Professors
- Jerry Sue Thornton, president, Cuyahoga Community College
- Lesley Wilson, secretary general, European Universities Association
- Ralph Wolff, president, Western Association of Schools & Colleges (senior college commission)