Senate education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said Congress had better find a way to improve the accreditation system that measures and ensures quality at today’s colleges and universities.
“There’s really not another way to do this—to monitor quality. Because if accreditation doesn’t do it, I can assure you that Congress can’t. And the Department of Education certainly doesn’t have the capacity or know-how,” Alexander said.
“They could hire a thousand bureaucrats to run around the country reviewing 6,000 colleges, but you can imagine what that would be like.”
Today’s hearing—the fifth the committee has held this year on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act—was on accreditation’s role in ensuring quality in higher education.
“Are accreditors doing enough to ensure that students are learning and receiving a quality education?” Alexander asked. He cited a recent survey commissioned by Inside Higher Ed that found that 97% of chief academic officers at public colleges and universities believe their institution is “very or somewhat effective at preparing students for the workforce.”
“But a Gallup survey shows that business leaders aren’t so sure,” Alexander said. “Only one-third of American business leaders say that colleges and universities are graduating students with the skills and competencies their businesses need. Nearly a third of business leaders disagree, with 17% going as far as to say that they strongly disagree.”
The chairman’s prepared remarks follow:
We’re here today to discuss our system for ensuring that colleges are giving students a good education. That’s called accreditation.
Accreditation is a self-governing process that was created by colleges in the 1800s. The organizations they created were intended to help colleges distinguish themselves from high schools and later, to accredit one another.
At this time there was no federal involvement in higher education or accreditation, and right around the end of World War II, about 5% of the population had earned a college degree.
Accreditation however took on a new role in the 1950’s. After the Korean War, Congress went looking for a way to ensure that the money spent for the GI Bill to help veterans go to college was being used at legitimate, quality institutions.
Congress had enough sense to know they couldn’t do the job of evaluating the diversity of our colleges and universities themselves so they outsourced the task to accreditation.
Accreditors became, as many like to say, “gatekeepers” to federal funds.
The Korean War G.I. Bill of 1952 first established this new responsibility – it said that veterans could only use their benefits at colleges that were accredited by an agency recognized by what was called the Commissioner of Education, and then after the Department of Education was created in 1979, the Secretary of Education.
The Higher Education Act of 1965 used this same idea when it created federal financial aid for non-veteran college students. Around this time, about 10% of the population had received a college degree.
However, the 1992 Higher Education Act Amendments were the first time the law said much about what standards accreditors needed to use when assessing quality at institutions of higher education.
Today, current law outlines 10 broad standards that federally recognized accreditors must have when reviewing colleges: student achievement; curriculum; faculty; facilities; fiscal and administrative capacity; student support services; recruiting and admissions practices; measure of program length; student complaints; and compliance with Title IV program responsibility.
The law tells accreditors that they must measure student achievement, but it doesn’t tell them how to do it.
Colleges and accreditors determine the specifics of the standards – not the Department of Education.
For the student achievement standard, colleges and universities define how they meet that standard based on their mission – the law specifically doesn’t let the Department of Education regulate or define student achievement.
And in fact, in 2007, when the Department of Education tried to do that, Congress stopped it.
Still, Congress spends approximately $33 billion for Pell grants each year, and taxpayers will lend over $100 billion in loans this year that students have to pay back.
So we have a duty to make certain that students are spending that money at quality colleges and universities.
I believe there are two main concerns about accreditation:
o One, is it ensuring quality?
o And two, is the federal government guilty of getting in the way of accreditors doing their job?
§ The Task Force on Government Regulation of Higher Education, which was commissioned by a bipartisan group of senators on this committee, told us in a detailed report that federal rules and regulations on accreditors have turned the process into federal “micro-management.”
In addressing these two concerns, I think we should look at five areas:
1. Are accreditors doing enough to ensure that students are learning and receiving a quality education?
a. A recent survey commissioned by Inside Higher Ed found that 97% of chief academic officers at public colleges and universities believe their institution is “very or somewhat effective at preparing students for the workforce.”
b. But a Gallup survey shows that business leaders aren’t so sure—only one-third of American business leaders say that colleges and universities are graduating students with the skills and competencies their businesses need. Nearly a third of business leaders disagree, with 17% going as far as to say that they strongly disagree.
2. Would more competition and choice among accreditors be one way to improve quality?
a. Accreditation is one of the few areas in higher education without choice and competition.
b. Today colleges and universities cannot choose which regional accrediting agency they’d like to use. If they could, would that drive quality?
3. Do federal rules and regulations force accreditors to spend too much time on issues other than quality?
a. Accreditation may now be “cops on the beat” for Department of Education rules and regulations unrelated to academic quality.
b. Accreditors review fire codes, institutional finances (something the Department of Education already looks at) and whether a school is in compliance with Department rules for Title IV. To me, these don’t seem to be an accreditor’s job.
4. Do accreditors have the right tools and flexibility to deal with the many different institutions with many different needs and circumstances?
a. Some well-established institutions may not need to go through the same process as everyone else, allowing accreditors to focus on those institutions that need the most help.
5. Could the public benefit from more information about accreditation?
a. All the public learns from the accreditation process is whether a school is accredited or unaccredited. Even at comparable colleges, quality may vary dramatically, yet all institutions receive the same, blanket “accredited” stamp of approval.
b. Seems to me that there could be more information provided to students, families or policymakers.
We’d better find a way to make accreditation work better.
There’s really not another way to do this—to monitor quality. Because if accreditation doesn’t do it, I can assure you that Congress can’t. And the Department of Education certainly doesn’t have the capacity or know-how.
They could hire a thousand bureaucrats to run around the country reviewing 6,000 colleges, but you can imagine what that would be like.
They’re already trying to rate colleges, and no one is optimistic about their efforts – I think they’ll collapse of their own weight.
So it’s crucial that accrediting of our colleges improve.
Our witnesses have a variety of viewpoints on accreditation and I look forward to the discussion.