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2 Think Tanks Weigh In on Accreditation

March 29, 2017

A new report from the Center for American Progress says 12 of the largest accrediting agencies lack the budgets and staffing necessary to adequately monitor the quality of colleges they oversee.

For example, the left-leaning group found, the 12 accreditors in 2013 spent a total of $75 million on quality assurance. As a result, the agencies are serving as gatekeepers to $1,693 in federal aid for every dollar they spend to oversee colleges. The report also cited the argument that accreditors are vulnerable to expensive lawsuits when a college challenges a sanction in court.

The conservative Heritage Foundation also released a report on accreditation this week, calling on the U.S. Congress to decouple federal aid financing from the accreditation process. Instead, the report called for all federal loans to be issued under the terms of graduate Stafford Loans.

Heritage also voiced support for a 2014 legislative proposal from Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, that would allow states to opt out of the current, federally sanctioned accreditation system and to instead set their own rules for accreditation. That might mean accrediting and issuing aid for alternative programs of study and even individual courses.

"This student-centered approach to accreditation reform could foster much-needed innovation in higher education and link student learning to skills needed in the marketplace," the Heritage report said.

In its report, the Center for American Progress called for accreditors to set minimum fees for their member institutions and to increase those fees on poor-performing colleges.

"Changing the funding structure could accomplish two goals. First, higher revenue would allow accreditors to hire more staff and focus more time and energy on schools in need of improvement," the report said. "Second, higher fees and more oversight for low performers would create incentives to improve performance. Accreditors should work to ensure these fees are adequate but not overly burdensome."

Barbara Brittingham, chair of the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions and president of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, New England Association of Schools and Colleges, responded to the Center for American Progress report with a written statement. While Brittingham said she appreciated that the report seeks enhanced legal protections for accreditors, she said its take on the agencies' staffing levels failed to recognize contributions of volunteers in the current peer-review structure.

"It notes that regional accreditation in a recent year was supported by over 4,300 volunteers, but does not reflect the value of the expertise of these volunteers to the enterprise," said Brittingham. "Because these volunteers are generally college and university presidents, academic officers, senior faculty, and others with specialized expertise, including members of the public, regional accreditation operates with capacity that goes far beyond a count of its employees. The depth and diversity of volunteer expertise keeps capacity high while staying financially efficient. We don’t want to unnecessarily increase cost that would likely be passed along to students."


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