The Higher Education Act is almost certainly going to pave the way for a new role for accreditors. The Department of Education is soliciting input, members of the Congressional education committees are discussing options, and Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) recently introduced legislation outlining their preferred path forward.
The Wall Street Journal on Monday hailed their proposal as a way to break the accreditation “cartel,” angering plenty of people across academia.
“There isn’t any cartel,” said Excelsior College President John Ebersole. “That’s the voice of ignorance speaking.”
Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation bristled at the editorial’s use of such harsh language, arguing in response that we should all “stop wasting time on name-calling.”
“Isn’t it about time that we get beyond trashing current accreditation to get to innovation in accreditation?” Eaton wrote.
Accreditors have certainly been painted in a poor light these last few years. In an attempt to ensure the integrity of the federal financial aid system, the Obama administration has asked accreditors to be even more of a gatekeeper, taking on enforcement responsibilities for regulatory policy. But the original role of regional accreditors was one of quality control partner to colleges and universities, who joined together in a commitment to self-improvement.
Ebersole has spent more than 25 years in higher education administration, including the last nine as president of Albany’s Excelsior College. He sees this dual role as unsustainable. For one, regional accreditors are funded by the accredited institutions they were designed to serve. For the government to require accreditors to do what is arguably its own work, Ebersole said the government should pay for it.
“Right now, the accreditation process costs the taxpayers zero,” Ebersole said. And yet, the government disburses federal financial aid based, in part, on the decisions of accreditors.
Rubio and Bennet’s legislation would make it easier for nontraditional programs to access federal financial aid dollars through an alternative accreditor. Critics have said the current accreditation system blocks innovation, keeping the increasingly popular coding bootcamps and other such programs out in the cold.
There, too, Ebersole and others finds inaccuracy. Excelsior was created in the 1970s as an innovation by New York State, earning accreditation from Middle States for a nursing program that the Department of Education has continued to reject for financial aid eligibility. The Higher Learning Commission has offered accreditation to the mostly online, flexible degree programs for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix and others have championed. The New England Association of Schools & Colleges fast-tracked approval of a competency-based program at Southern New Hampshire University.
While accreditors can certainly be faulted for some things, examples of these organizations paving the way for innovation abound. And as in the case of Excelsior’s nursing program, the Department of Education has, at times, been the one to stand in the way of innovation. The inspector general’s latest audit found fault with the Higher Learning Commission’s approval of certain competency-based programs. With 600 CBE programs at colleges nationwide either in development or already started, the report was an unwelcome shock.
“You could hear the scream of brakes being applied all over the country when that came out,” Ebersole said.
Accreditors are often caught in the middle of federal policymakers’ changing, or warring, whims. The system needs a makeover — most people are clear about that. But critics would do well to approach the debate with a level head.
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