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

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Article Highlights

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

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

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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).

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