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The Midterm Elections: What Do They Mean for Accreditation? | Commentary

The midterm elections are over and the question for higher education and accreditation is: What will the change to Republican leadership in the U.S. Senate mean going forward? Will we have a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act any time in the next few years? If so, what will it look like? If not, what will this mean for the academic community?

Until a few weeks ago, the academic community knew what mattered to the Democrat-led Senate: For years, more regulation of higher education and accreditation has been viewed as essential, with the government spending about $175 billion a year on student aid and with rising tuition, rising student debt and lower-than-desirable graduation rates.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has said on more than one occasion that accreditation was not doing enough with quality control and accountability, especially when it comes to “bad actors” or substandard institutions. His June 2014 discussion draft for reauthorization included a significant expansion of transparency in accreditation. Even as some Senate members expressed concern about President Barack Obama’s proposed College Ratings System, some still supported creating performance indicators for colleges and universities, including student learning outcomes a task that, to date, has been left to the academic community. Various members of the Senate were calling for more innovation in higher education and challenging accreditation to provide some leadership here.

This urgency that has surrounded the national quality discussion for the past several years will not diminish. However, a Republican-led Senate means that we will not go into next year and a possible reauthorization facing an iron-clad commitment to more regulation of accreditation at any cost. At the same time, however, accreditation will not be on a path to no additional regulation at all. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., likely incoming chair of the HELP committee, once likened accreditation today to the auto industry of the 1970s, calling for innovation, change and a fresh look.

The issues debated in the 113th Congress — quality control, accountability, innovation — will be on the table in the 114th. It is the approach that is likely to vary. The senator, a former U.S. Secretary of Education and university president, has said on many occasions that he wants to deregulate not regulate more to address the quality and accountability challenges for higher education and accreditation. He has spearheaded the bipartisan Task Force on Government Regulation in Higher Education, looking to reduce unnecessary or duplicative regulation of student aid and accrediting organizations. The task force report is expected to be released in January. He has talked about not making funds available for implementation of the College Ratings System. He has defended the peer review process at the heart of accreditation and talked about the importance of institutional autonomy to future progress on innovation, with colleges and universities, not government, in the lead. He wants to streamline the federal student aid application system.

The one thing about which we can be sure is that accreditation will have a shot in the 114th Congress — another opportunity to call attention to what it does to assure educational excellence for students and society, but without additional, extensive federal regulation. Some in Congress would agree that the country cannot regulate its way to innovation nor regulate its way to quality. There must be room for the energy, creativity and insight that colleges, universities and accreditation bring to the table.

We need to engage the challenges to quality review emerging from the changing landscape of higher education: new non-institutional types of educational providers outside traditional institutions such as private companies offering education, massive open online courses and badges or digital arrays of student competencies. We in accreditation can take advantage of the emerging opportunity — but only if we are willing to do a good deal more about the rigor of our quality review, our commitment to public accountability and transparency and our leadership for innovation for the many institutions and programs we currently accredit and providers we may accredit in the future.

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

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