Senator Lamar Alexander today questioned whether “the federal government has overstepped” in college accreditation, asking witnesses at a hearing to consider whether federal requirements have accreditors losing their focus on quality.
The Ranking Member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee recounted the history of accreditation, noting that it began as a way for colleges to self-regulate and ensure quality.
As federal aid became tied to accreditation standards, Senator Alexander said, the federal government added requirements that may be harming efforts to ensure quality education. He asked witnesses to help identify those areas.
“I think it is important to look back at where accreditation came from to see what it’s central purpose is, whether the accreditors are fulfilling that role, what is the federal government’s role in accreditation, and has the federal government overstepped to the point that accreditors are not doing what they were designed to do,” he said.
Comparing the single page of requirements from 1952 with stacks of paper of current federal statute and regulation, Senator Alexander noted that federal accreditors now must consider 93 criteria. Alexander said, “This is what it is today. This is the law, these are the regulations. These are the sub-regulations – still quite a bit, and I think one of the things we want to know is, is all this necessary?
“In our previous hearings, I have suggested that, through no evil intention of anybody, we’ve reauthorized the Higher Education Act, I think nine times since 1965, and maybe we’ve piled on laws and regulations, without thinking about what could be removed.”
The senator described several phases of how the accreditation process has evolved from a simple way for schools to self-regulate to an extensive system of federal regulation. They included:
- The beginning of accreditation back in 1885 as a way for schools to differentiate for themselves whether they were high schools or colleges. About 3 percent of Americans were completing college at that point, Senator Alexander said.
- The increasing use of accreditation to determine quality among colleges, including the G.I. Bill tying approval of federal financial aid for veterans of the Korean War to the accreditation of colleges. Veterans were able to use federal money to go to any accredited schools, at which point about 6 percent of Americans were completing college, Senator Alexander said.
- The requirement in 1965 that any student receiving federal financial aid go to a federally accredited university, which led over time to increased federal regulation of the accreditation process. Today, Vanderbilt University devotes more than 5,000 hours to accreditation-related work for its College of Arts and Sciences, and up to 8,000 hours for its School of Engineering, Senator Alexander said.
“The whole purpose of accreditation to begin with was an effort by autonomous institutions to regulate themselves with the sole purpose of determining quality.
“The federal government then – understandably, because we spend lot of money to help students – said, well, we want to make sure they are going to proper institutions, and so we have gotten involved in giving the accreditors more to do.
“Are the accreditors doing some things they don’t need to be doing? And are they spending enough time really focused on quality?”
While questioning witnesses, the senator asked them to identify areas where the committee could clarify the proper role of accreditors and the federal government. Alexander said, “Help us sort out what accreditors are supposed to do, what the federal government is supposed to do, and what accreditors are doing now that you don’t need to be doing.
“The only other thing to do is hire a bunch of regulators and put them in the Department of Education and travel around and see 7,000 institutions and that would be a disaster. They wouldn’t have a clue about what they were seeing.”
His full remarks follow:
I want to welcome our witnesses and thank Chairman Harkin for this hearing. I especially appreciate the even-handed way he’s approached all of these subjects on higher education and I look forward to working with him to doing our best to try to reauthorize higher education next year.
I am glad that we are looking at the role of accreditation in all types of the six or seven thousand higher education institutions we have, and I think it is important to look back at where accreditation came from to see what it’s central purpose is, whether the accreditors are fulfilling that role, what is the federal government’s role in accreditation, and has the federal government overstepped to the point that accreditors are not doing what they were designed to do.
It’s worth it to me to go back to where accreditation started.
The first accrediting agencies emerged more than 120 years ago, in the late 1800s. That was a very different time. There were not many colleges, most of them were private, and they had abandoned the classical curriculum and some were adopting the new elective system.
There were new types of institutions – it wasn’t even clear what the difference was between a high school and a college, so the accrediting agencies’ first role in that phase was to help create common admission standards so you could decide what was a high school and what was a college.
And the first effort at that was in 1885, at the turn of the 20th century, Mr. Chairman – when all this was going on, less than 13 percent of Americans were completing high school and less than 3 percent were completing college degrees. There wasn’t any federal involvement at all in any of that.
Then the G.I. Bill came in 1944 - money for veterans - and they could even spend the money at high schools. The number of people going to college doubled, but still wasn’t really very many.
Then the Korean War came, and the Korean War G.I. Bill specified that institutions of higher education needed to be accredited by federally recognized accreditors in order for a veteran to spend money there. So, it began to tie the federal government to the existing institutions.
And at that time, only about 35 percent of students were graduating from high school and 6 percent were completing college. That’s the time of the Korean War. So, this is where this all came from.
State approval of institutions was enough, everybody thought, for all of these higher education institutions. That pretty well lasted until 1965 with the federal student aid. It would only go to institutions recognized by a federally recognized accreditor. That’s what the 1965 Higher Education Act did.
That tied eligibility to receive federal aid to federal regulation – but the law pretty well remained silent.
This page [holding up a single sheet of paper], Mr. Chairman, is the entire amount of federal law on accreditation in the federal government in 1952, at the end of the Korean War.
And this is what it is today [holding up a stack of papers]. This is the law, these are the regulations. These are the sub-regulations – still quite a bit, and I think one of the things we want to know is, is all this necessary?
In our previous hearings, I have suggested that, through no evil intention of anybody, we’ve reauthorized the Higher Education Act, I think nine times since 1965, and maybe we’ve piled on laws and regulations, without thinking about what could be removed. I’ll be interested to see what you think about whether we are adding unnecessary costs and delays to institutions with these federal requirements.
Briefly, in 1992 – and I was Education Secretary at that time [of the] the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Sen. Kennedy was particularly involved in this. Sen. Harkin was on the committee at that time.
It defined the areas that accreditors needed to examine, and by then, 80 percent of Americans were completing high school and 21 percent were completing college. And that language was modified and expanded in 1998 and 2008.
So now we have 93 different criteria that accreditors must consider when determining institutional quality.
I think the main point to make Mr. Chairman, and I’ll bring my remarks to a conclusion so that we can hear from our witnesses. The whole purpose of accreditation to begin with was an effort by autonomous institutions to regulate themselves with the sole purpose of determining quality.
The federal government then – understandably, because we spend lot of money to help students – said, well, we want to make sure they are going to proper institutions, and so we have gotten involved in giving the accreditors more to do.
I think we have to think about – have we asked the accreditors to do some things that they shouldn’t be doing? Are the accreditors doing some things they don’t need to be doing? And are they spending enough time really focused on quality?
At Vanderbilt University, they estimate its College of Arts and Sciences devotes more than 5,000 hours to accreditation-related work every year, and that its School of Engineering devotes up to 8,000 hours of work every year on accreditation.
That is probably way too much, so we are looking for advice and we are trying to work together to sort through what has been done, and I appreciate the chairman giving me a little more time to talk about this. But I have watched it from various angles, from the angle of a university president, an education secretary and a governor, and I have gotten pretty mad at accreditors sometimes when they came in and told me what to do that I didn’t think needed to be done – for example, when I was president of the University of Tennessee.
So I welcome your testimony, I thank the chairman for the hearing, and I look forward to the opportunity to ask questions.