While the state of the nation’s current higher education accreditation systems has many education advocates concerned, a Seton Hall professor writes in a new report that any federal legislative changes could be difficult.
“There’s a lot of dissatisfaction with the current accreditation system, in terms of the speed at which it operates and in terms of quality, but moving to a new system will not be easy.” Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University said.
Kelchen is the author of an upcoming book on higher education accountability; he also penned the report “Higher Education Accreditation and the Federal Government” for the Urban Institute. The report analyzes the role of the federal government in higher education accreditation and offers solutions to existing challenges.
There are seven regional accreditors serving institutions throughout the nation, working with about 39% of all variety of schools and 85% of students, according to the report. There are also a number of national accreditors, including several faith-based, career-based, and program-specific agencies.
According to the report, colleges and universities are most often in danger of losing accreditation because of the financial instability of the campus, as deemed by accreditors; they judge that the schools may not be able to remain financially viable over the course of a full accredited period.
One of Kelchen’s potential solutions was to take away financial status and focus on the quality of the education offered, leaving the assessment of a school's financial health to the federal government or a contracted third party grpup.
“I think that delegating most of the financial responsibilities to the federal government would allow accreditors to focus more on academics, and it would also reduce their workload quite a bit ... whenever an accreditor threatens to take away a college’s accreditation, the college’s response is often to sue the accreditor,” he said, indicating there could be substantive cost savings for both parties. “As a basic financial stability measure, I think that’s better.”
Impact of alternative credentials
An additional concern is the increased preponderance of alternative credentialing programs, where students have the opportunity to pursue credits or degrees outside of the traditional college system. The report notes that students are able to take individual courses through programs run by companies like Coursera, but these classes cannot be accredited under the current system, so students cannot access federal financial aid towards these classes. Schools will face an additional challenge as they work to offer their own types of alternative credentialing systems on-campus, Kelchen said, noting the slow pace of the college accreditation process will make it difficult for schools and third parties to keep pace with market demand.
“The question becomes what kind of quality metrics these programs must meet?” he said. “I think it’ll be a bigger concern, and as colleges and universities start offering new programs to complete, can the accrediting agencies be accommodating to letting those programs move forward?”
Kelchen said there is a fair amount of bipartisan support for making it easier for these kinds of programs to receive some sort of accreditation, but it remained to be seen what would ultimately make it through the legislative process. But it is unlikely that all accreditation will be done by course or program as opposed to by institution in the immediate future because such a change would carry an imposing price tag. The report did cite legislation introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) to enable nontraditional education providers to have access to some sort of federal financial aid for a short period of time.
“Accreditation reform is a space where there is room for bipartisan legislation, as evidenced by the Rubio-Bennet bill on allowing nontraditional educational providers to receive accreditation on a case-by-case basis,” the report stated. “Members of both parties appear to be interested in making changes to the current system, and the overdue reauthorization of the Higher Education Act provides an opportunity for sizable changes to the relationship between the Department of Education and accreditors.”