Protecting students and taxpayers: The federal government's failed regulatory approach and steps for reform

Shutterstock.com

Article Highlights

  • Government approach to higher ed regulation is a failure by almost any measure.

    Tweet This

  • Congress must reform and modernize the process for determining college and university eligibility for federal funds.

    Tweet This

Subscribe to AEI's education emails
Articles and events on education policy. Published approximately weekly.

First Name:
Last Name:
Email:
Zip Code:

When it comes to federal funding of higher education, the government’s approach to quality assurance and consumer protection is a public policy and regulatory failure by almost any measure.

For nearly half a century, the federal government has largely outsourced the determination of which colleges and universities are eligible to receive federal taxpayer money—in the form of student grants and loans—to member-based, geographically oriented accrediting agencies. The rationale was to ensure that students attended quality institutions from which they were likely to graduate and be employable, thereby safeguarding students and ensuring taxpayer dollars were well spent. This outsourcing of responsibility, however, has failed to protect consumers and taxpayers.

Accrediting agencies have three primary—and, many say, conflicting—roles. The first is to assist colleges and universities with self-improvement through a process of peer evaluation. Second, since many states and funders will not pay for enrollment at nonaccredited institutions, and most colleges and universities will not transfer course credits earned at nonaccredited schools, accrediting agencies ostensibly protect consumers from “diploma mills.” Finally, accrediting agencies serve as gatekeepers for the US Department of Education in determining eligibility for federal education funding.[1] This third role is especially important: since federal funding is the lifeblood of most higher education institutions, accreditation determines whether a school can remain financially viable.

Unfortunately, the current regulatory regime that relies on accrediting agencies

  • Fails to accomplish congressional intent (and therefore puts billions of federal tax dollars at risk);
  • Interferes with the autonomy and independence of American higher education; and
  • Undermines America’s global leadership in higher education by stifling innovation.

These flaws are not new. For more than three decades, there has been a steady stream of studies on the limits and defects of accreditation.[2] It is time to acknowledge that further studies of the problem are unnecessary and that Congress must reform and modernize the process for determining college and university eligibility for federal funds. Drawing on my experience as a US congressman and senator and, later, as president of the University of Northern ­Colorado and the University of Colorado, I have ­collaborated with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) and the former chair of the ­Colorado Commission on Higher Education, Richard O’Donnell, to present a variety of suggestions for reform, ranging from modest tweaks to completely new approaches. These include:

  • Separating eligibility for federal education funding from the accreditation process;
  • Ensuring transparent performance metrics;
  • Allowing for expedited self-certification by colleges, universities, and other education providers;
  • Allowing and encouraging new agencies for higher education quality assurance, and giving institutions the opportunity to choose from a range of qualified, approved accrediting agencies;
  • Creating institutional-level and student-level accountability for quality assurance; and
  • Expanding the number of states designated as accrediting agencies.

I do not argue that all of these steps must be taken to reform accreditation. Rather, reformers should consider each of these ideas as possible components of a larger effort.

Notes

1. Anne Neal and Arthur Rothkopf, Alternative to the NACIQI Draft Final Report (Washington, DC: US Department of Education National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity [NACIQI], 2012), 12; and George C. Leef and Roxana D. Burris, Can College Accreditation Live Up to Its Promise? (Washington, DC: American Council of Trustees and Alumni [ACTA], 2002) 6, 35–38.
2. Among the studies are: Robert C. Dickeson, The Need for Accreditation Reform (Washington, DC: Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, 2006); Leef and Burris, Can College Accreditation Live Up to Its Promise?; and Judith S. Eaton, “Is Accreditation Accountable? The Continuing Conversation between Accreditation and the Federal Government” (Council for Higher Education Accreditation Monograph No. 1, 2003).

Read the full paper.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine

What's new on AEI

Defeating ISIS: AEI experts weigh-in before the president’s address on Wednesday
image Degrading, defeating, and destroying the Islamic State
image Wealth Building Home Loan: Building wealth through homeownership and retirement savings
image The $3 iPhone
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 15
    MON
  • 16
    TUE
  • 17
    WED
  • 18
    THU
  • 19
    FRI
Tuesday, September 16, 2014 | 5:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.
The Constitution as political theory

Please join us for the third-annual Walter Berns Constitution Day Lecture as James Ceasar, Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, explores some of the Constitution’s most significant contributions to political theory, focusing on themes that have been largely unexamined in current scholarship.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014 | 8:10 a.m. – Thursday, September 18, 2014 | 1:30 p.m.
Third international conference on housing risk: New risk measures and their applications

We invite you to join us for this year’s international conference on housing risk — cosponsored by the Collateral Risk Network and AEI International Center on Housing Risk — which will focus on new mortgage and collateral risk measures and their applications.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, September 18, 2014 | 2:15 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Speaker of the House John Boehner on resetting America’s economic foundation

Please join us as Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) delivers his five-point policy vision to reset America’s economy.

Event Registration is Closed
Friday, September 19, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Reforming Medicare: What does the public think?

Please join us as a panel of distinguished experts explore the implications of the report and the consumer role in shaping the future of Medicare.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.