Washington Update

Senators Question Higher Education Accreditation Practices

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Members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee are questioning the effectiveness of higher-education accreditation, indicating the issue will be important in the forthcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Several Democrats, including HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA), used a hearing to ask why so few colleges lose their accreditation, as well as whether enough is being done to maintain institutional quality while encouraging innovation.

Freshman Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a prominent advocate for consumers, asked education officials on one panel whether there should be “a bright line beyond which we say a school should not be accredited.” Panelists said in response that the establishment of an overarching standard was too simplistic and ignored the vast differences among institutions. Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation argued, “If we have 50% graduation as a bright line, then we just closed every community college in the United States.” That led Warren to respond, “Fair enough. But there is no number? 25%? 5%? 1%?”

Warren also cited problems with the peer-review system in accreditation, going so far as to compare the closeness between accreditors and institutions to the conflicts within the financial services oversight system that failed to anticipate the 2008 financial crisis. But Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the committee’s ranking Republican and a former president of the University of Tennessee, dismissed the idea that accreditors were too closely allied with the colleges they examined. “Academic people are independent, shall we say,” he remarked. “When they arrive on campus, they’re not going to give you a pass. They are skeptics by nature and they take some delight in catching somebody not doing something as well as they do.”

Alexander did question whether accreditors could satisfactorily address the government’s need for quality control with the college’s quest for institutional improvement. But he indicated that solutions for improvement to the process lay with reducing the burden of federal requirements on accreditation, questioning several panelists as to whether those requirements proved distracting. Ralph A. Wolff, who recently retired as president of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, proposed a “risk-based” accreditation approach, which would exempt successful institutions from some oversight.
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