WASHINGTON -- To hear members of Congress tell it, reauthorizing the Higher Education Act is looming on the near horizon of the legislative agenda -- even though most others here consider it a mirage that’s still years away. But when lawmakers do sit down to rewrite the law governing financial aid programs, accreditation will be under a particularly harsh spotlight.
That was clear at a hearing Thursday of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s subcommittee on higher education and workforce training, where a panel featured two representatives of accrediting agencies and two critics of traditional accreditation.
Members of Congress of both parties seemed to agree more with the critics, saying they were skeptical that traditional accreditation was flexible enough to respond to new developments in higher education. And panelists themselves didn’t pull any punches, leveling familiar charges against the traditional peer review system of accreditation that appear to be finding an increasingly receptive audience among policy makers.
Accreditation has been under increasing scrutiny in Washington for most of the past decade. During the second term of the Bush administration, former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings pursued changes to accreditation through regulation.
A federal panel overseeing accreditors offered its own suggestions  for overhauling the system in a report issued last year, and a proposal is circulating on Capitol Hill -- so far without much traction -- to urge accreditors to develop a more flexible system of approval for new entrants to the higher education market.
Accreditation conveys a range of benefits for colleges and universities, but for many, its most important role is serving as a gateway to federal financial aid programs.
The last time around, it was Congress that pushed back  on the Education Department’s attempts to change accreditation. This time, lawmakers seem open to an overhaul -- an idea often discussed but frequently dismissed as either impractical or politically impossible.
Both Representative Virginia Foxx, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the subcommittee, and Rubén Hinojosa, the Texas Democrat who is its ranking member, emphasized that traditional accreditation could do better at dealing with competency-based learning, massive open online courses and other innovations. Other members of Congress, especially Republicans, emphasized their concerns about what it costs institutions to pursue and keep accreditation.
President Obama entered the accreditation debate in February, in documents that accompanied the State of the Union address. The president called for changes to the criteria accreditors use to evaluate colleges to pay more attention to price and value, or for the creation of a new path to federal financial aid based on “performance and results.”
Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation, offered a blueprint for changes to the existing accreditation system and for the creation of a new system of approval for nontraditional providers. Accreditors should offer multiple tiers of accreditation to convey differences in quality, and documents from the accreditation process should be made public, Carey said.
He also called for an “accreditation fee” that colleges would pay directly to the Education Department, rather than to accreditors, to avoid what he described as the conflict of interest inherent in a system in which colleges are reviewed by a voluntary body to which they pay membership fees. The department would then distribute the money to accreditors based on volume but also on performance -- giving the federal government greater powers over accrediting agencies than it has now.
For nontraditional providers -- Carey used the example of a Nobel Prize-winning physician who wanted to create an online physics curriculum -- he urged a new system of course-level accreditation that would make those courses eligible for federal financial aid. Courses and programs would have to provide more information about student learning outcomes, and students would receive less financial aid than the per-course average for a traditional student -- a way policy approaches could be used to drive down the price of highe education, Carey said.
Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and a longtime critic of accreditation, argued for breaking the link between accreditation and federal student aid, instead requiring colleges to be audited for financial stability and disclose data to the Education Department about student success.
While they appeared to agree with Carey’s critique, Congressional Republicans seemed wary of increasing the Education Department’s power over colleges. And some Democrats were skeptical of Neal’s claim that disclosure alone would be enough to control quality in higher education.
"We put a lot of transparency in the last higher ed bill, but unfortunately we don’t see that driving a lot of consumer decisions,” said Representative John Tierney, a Massachusetts Democrat.
The representatives of accrediting organizations -- Michale McComis, executive director of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, a national accreditor; and Elizabeth Sibolski, president of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education -- argued that the peer review system of accreditation is critical and that accreditors are working to promote innovation and create more flexible options for approval.
One frequent criticism of accreditation is it relies too much on “input” measures -- such as the proportion of professors with Ph.D.s -- rather than “outputs,” such as evidence of whether students are learning. But McComis said that while measuring outcomes are important, measuring inputs also provides valuable information about best practices. "To take away the regulatory or the oversight component seems counterintuitive,” he said.”There’s no evidence that institutions alone are going to produce any more quality or meet any more expectations than accreditation has been intended to produce.”
Middle States is in discussions with several of its institutional members about approving competency-based direct assessment programs, in which students are awarded credit based on what they’ve learned, not how much time they’ve spent in class, Sibolski said -- a clear attempt to answer the critique that innovation is not occurring under the current system. And she said the accreditor is aware of concerns about cost and speed in accreditation and is attempting to streamline its process.
The question, she said, is how to ensure “you’re doing a thorough job and still make sure that it is cost- effective and timely -- that’s a tough thing to try to negotiate.”