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Maintaining Quality and Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act | Commentary

The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act provides Congress with an ideal opportunity to streamline and clarify the relationship between the federal government and accreditation, higher education’s primary means of assuring and improving quality.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation, the largest higher-education institutional membership organization in the country and dedicated to advocacy and improvement of accreditation, believes that this is in the best interests of students and society, as well as helping accreditation to better meet the evolving expectations of Congress.

The stakes for accreditation are high. More and more, Congress is looking to accreditation to help assure that attending college is affordable for more students, that educational innovation is encouraged and that information is available to students and parents about outcomes such as graduation rates and employment and earnings for graduates. These increased expectations for accreditation are a result of the growing level of federal student aid spending, an estimated $175 billion a year. Congress wants to assure that students can make good decisions about college attendance and taxpayers are getting a reasonable return on their considerable investment in higher education.

Congress’ reauthorization work has been accelerating since August. Both the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training have been holding hearings on higher-education issues, many of which have also focused on accreditation. Congressional leaders have asked for information and recommendations from stakeholders. Recently, HELP Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, told the audience at the CHEA annual conference that he hopes to see reauthorization legislation introduced by the middle of 2014.

HELP ranking member Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has called for a fresh start, with Congress drafting a brand new Higher Education Act. Harkin said such an approach was worth considering. And House leaders such as Virginia Foxx have said the reauthorization will offer the opportunity to find ways to streamline the accreditation process.

Some members of Congress are concerned about the growing regulatory burden on accreditation and higher education. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski, Richard M. Burr and Michael Bennet have joined Alexander to form a bipartisan Task Force on Government Regulation of Higher Education, with the goal of identifying duplicative or unnecessary regulations. Accreditation is a key topic for the task force.

While Congress’ attention is on reducing regulation, the U.S. Department of Education continues on its path of rapidly expanding regulation of accreditation, under way since the last reauthorization in 2008. Quality is now, more than ever, defined as compliance with government regulation, based on a strong belief that more regulation will mean greater quality. Needed innovation in accreditation is also seen as requiring the direction and assistance of government.

Accreditors want to meet government expectations and sustain greater quality but are skeptical that ever-expanding regulation is the means to achieve these goals. What do we need to do? How can we take good advantage of the opportunity of reauthorization to both streamline and clarify the accreditation-federal government relationship?

Streamlining means that we ask whether the current process of federal review of accrediting organization is doing the job. Accrediting organizations, in federal law, are “reliable authorities as to the quality of education or training.” This is where regulation needs to focus. Instead, federal review is often about day-to-day operation, e.g., hiring practices, appointment of decision-making bodies, activities that are important but are not part of determining quality. Regulation is focused on many of the wrong things and has become an end in itself. Streamlining can change this.

Clarifying regulation means taking a new look at just what business the federal government expects accreditation to carry out. Over the years, more and more regulation is focused on what accreditors are doing about use of federal funds such as student grants and loans, student indebtedness and default rates. But the law says that accreditors are reliable authorities on educational quality, not student aid, debt and default. These are the tasks of USDE.

Accreditation is dedicated to helping students learn, to improving educational quality and to promoting quality innovation. This is what “reliable authority as to the quality of education or training” means. This is not the government’s work. We need Congress to reauthorize an HEA that allows accreditation to do what it does best, with sufficient regulation to produce accountability yet enable accreditation to be successful in its vital service to students and society.

Judith Eaton is president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

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