This is the second article in a three-part series on the broader issues at play as higher ed debates proposed new rules governing topics such as online learning and new education models. Read the first and third installment.
In a hotel conference room in the nation's capital, the higher ed world's gatekeepers were gathering over coffee, tea and bottled water to talk about their work just as the Education Department was getting underway with an attempt to overhaul it on a breadth and scale rarely seen.
Speakers at this year's meeting of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), in January, often struck an existential note about their role in the higher ed regulatory "triad": federal and state governments and nonprofit accreditors together tasked with safeguarding educational quality and more than $120 billion in federal student aid spending.
"It's a dangerous time," said James Gaudino, president of Central Washington University and a CHEA director, at the event. "Imagine what's going to happen if we don't change," he added, invoking the possibility accreditors could be pushed "out of existence" by for-profit organizations or "quasi-government" entities.
But there is little agreement on the best way forward. Earlier this year, the Ed Department showed its hand with radical proposals that would loosen federal oversight of accreditors. They would also make it easier for new accreditors to come into being, as well as for institutions to merge or undertake dramatic changes and for institutions to outsource potentially all of their academic operations to unaccredited third parties.
At the same time as Betsy DeVos' Ed Department moves to clear regulatory hurdles and expand innovation, there are plenty of additional critics of the current system of accreditation and federal oversight who would move it in the opposite direction. They want more federal oversight of accreditors, they want to push accreditors to be more aggressive in policing college behavior and student outcomes, and they want to address and shut down, if necessary, poorly performing colleges before they collapse.
Michael Itzkowitz, a senior fellow at center-left think tank Third Way and a former Ed Department official, said easing the process to create more gatekeepers or allowing schools to outsource to outsiders could "open up the big bucket of federal student aid to unaccredited providers and untested programs that don't necessarily meet our current accreditation standards."
They also could allow poorly performing institutions to remain federally funded and even expand their operations with minimal oversight, he added. "You combine all these things, it could potentially lead to disaster ... that could take decades to undo."
Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher ed policy at the nonpartisan think tank New America, agrees there are "significant problems" with accreditation. "But I think it's fully in the opposite direction," she said. "(Accreditors) don't act aggressively enough when they see real problems and real warnings."
The argument comes down to which part of the triad should do what — and when — in protecting students from schools that are financially unsound or have poor track records in graduating students or getting them jobs.
Critics of the current system often say each branch of the triad shunts responsibility to the others. And while accreditors worry about their work being subsumed by new players or the government, the accreditation system and its incentives sometimes align against taking strong action.
Limitations on accreditors
The obstacles and incentives that might prevent accreditors from weeding out ailing, predatory or poor-quality colleges are many and powerful, and federal regulation can only do so much.
"The way accreditation is done, it's essentially peer review," said Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, pointing to the system of higher ed professionals serving as volunteers on accrediting bodies. "There are concerns about back-stratching: 'If you let my college go through, I'll let yours go through.' "
Accreditors also face political pressure not to take action that could lead to a college closure. Institutions may get politicians involved, and no congressional leader wants to see a college in their district close, Kelchen said. As an example, he points to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-C.A., targeting the accreditor of the City College of San Francisco and calling for regulators to pull the accreditors' federal recognition after it nearly closed the college. "There's little political will across the political spectrum to close (underperforming) colleges," Kelchen said.
There are also financial constraints on accreditors. The budgets of the country's 12 main accreditors amount to $75 million, a small fraction of the tens of billions of dollars in federal student aid flowing through colleges, according to an analysis from the left-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP). And for every $1 accreditors spend on the process of quality assurance, they open up nearly $1,700 in federal aid for colleges, according to CAP.
The think tank recommends minimum membership fees for colleges, with heavier fees for poor performers, as well as more staffing and resources at the Ed Department, and better legal protection for accreditors.
"Accreditors don't have much in the way of resources," Kelchen said. "They are limited in how deeply they can investigate a college."
Raising the financial stakes for accreditors, and their incentives against taking dramatic action, is the threat of lawsuit. Colleges often sue over lost accreditation, including Paine College and Bennett College, both historically black colleges that lost accreditation due to financial management concerns. The lawsuits, not always successful, can force the bodies to reinstate accreditation. In either case, the legal costs can become a burden for accreditors.
Plain old inertia could come into play, too. "It's a failure of the triad," said Antoinette Flores, associate director for postsecondary education at CAP and author of the report on accreditors' finances. "If you talk to (accreditors), they will say they are not regulators. Their goal is 'continuous improvement.' They will say they don’t have knowledge and expertise to investigate these things."
"The way accreditation is done, it's essentially peer review. There are concerns about backstratching: 'If you let my college go through, I'll let yours go through.'"
Assistant professor of higher education, Seton Hall University
Another problem, according to Kelchen, is that accreditors are much more likely to take strong action against colleges over financial issues, rather than academic ones. At the heart of the discussion over accreditation, he adds, is the extent to which colleges throughout the industry should be liable for poor student outcomes.
"If a college is graduating, say, 20% of its students, it's worth asking tough questions of why so few students are graduating," he said. "If students just aren't finishing and the college is unable to explain why, that's a serious problem."
That's one concern now. "There's some additional scrutiny for colleges with poor outcomes, but the most elite and the most struggling institutions go through a fairly serious process," he said. "It’s just that the more struggling institutions tend to go through it more often."
Kelchen also notes accreditors are likely better positioned than even the federal government to improve college quality in all sectors. "Accreditors are largely staffed by people who have been in higher education, understand how colleges work, and in many cases have actually taught students," he said. "The drawback is an accreditor might be hesitant to close a college because they see that even with a 20% graduation rate, colleges are still helping some students."
The role of innovation
In opening up a process to rewrite the rules around accreditation, the Ed Department's public rhetoric has focused mainly on the need to make room for innovation in higher ed and remove what it sees as burdensome regulation. Its initial proposals, released in January, were met with dismay by critics and some "consternation" among existing accreditors and other stakeholders.
Even the for-profit sector, which is largely aligned with DeVos' department philosophically, considers some early proposals from the federal agency too radical. Steve Gunderson, president and CEO of Career Education Colleges and Universities (CECU), a trade group for those institutions, wouldn't give a figure for how much of an educational program he thinks a college should be able to outsource to an unaccredited third party, but he said, "I know the department going to 100% was not a good recommendation."
The outsourcing proposal has since been reduced to up to 75%, which critics still view as too high. The Ed Department has also tweaked or walked back other positions from its draft rules. Diane Auer Jones, the department's principal deputy under secretary, told accreditors at the CHEA meeting that her agency is "not wedded" to its proposals. "Clearly we came to the table with some very provocative ideas," she said. "We just wanted to open the conversation."
Yet critics, including McCann and Flores, say the process has been chaotic and sometimes confusing for the negotiators and shows few prospects for consensus.
"Any time they want to open federal student aid in the name of innovation, there needs to be strong federal guardrails put in place to protect students."
Senior fellow, Third Way
On the whole, Gunderson and his for-profit members agree with the overhaul and its purpose. "Everything in this sector has changed in the last decade except federal policy," he said, adding that the accreditation system needs to be able to respond to new skill demands in industry.
Changes that CECU members want, Gunderson says, include the ability to modify or change programs quickly, restoration of what he calls the "traditional" roles for triad — including leaving responsibility for reviewing a school's financial capacity with the department — and for online programs to no longer require state authorization, all of which Gunderson says are "on the agenda."
Accreditors, too, feel the need to keep up with workforce demands. "The need for education has never been higher than it is today," Gaudino said at CHEA's January meeting.
Indeed, most jobs created since the Great Recession went to those with a bachelor's degree or higher. But even postsecondary players that teach cutting-edge professional skills say opening the field — and title Title IV funds — to unaccredited outsiders may well not produce the desired results. Liz Simon, vice president of legal and external affairs at boot camp provider General Assembly, said any expansion of TItle IV access or allowing accredited schools to outsource should be done with a focus on quality control and student outcomes.
General Assembly's programs are not accredited, largely because programming and curriculum must shift quickly with employer needs, and Simon doesn't see accreditation or Title IV access as necessary to the firm's success. "I think (student) access is going to be … driven by things like income share models and by employers taking a more active role in upskilling and reskilling the people they employ," she said.
Third Way's Itzkowitz said the Ed Department has offered no evidence its rules would actually facilitate innovation in higher ed, and that history has demonstrated the harms that can come from lax oversight on colleges and accreditors. He cited the influx of predatory institutions that sought GI Bill money and a wave of "fly-by-night" operations in the 1980s, before accountability rules were introduced.
"Any time they want to open federal student aid in the name of innovation, there needs to be strong federal guardrails put in place to protect students,” Itzkowitz said.