Institutions’ lamentations of regulatory pressures are not a new phenomenon. Regulatory and compliance influences are often engaged in debate and discourse. Regardless of national conversation, legislators continue to reintroduce new means intended to uphold quality assurances.
In fact, Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) have recently reintroduce a bill to create new types of accrediting organizations. Likewise, Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced a bill which would expand stage of actors for accreditation. The list goes on — Senators Warren (D-Mass.) and Hatch (R-Utah) joined forced to develop Senate Bill 1121, titled the College Transparency Act of 2017, which promotes institutional transparency.
Last year, I was invited to a meeting at Pepperdine University for a special interest group comprised almost exclusively of accreditation liaison officers. Attendees listened carefully and in angst, as Dr. Mary Ellen Petrisko offering predictions about federal interests in the larger accreditation agenda on the dawn of the Trump Era. At the time, Dr. Petrisko spoke about the Warren/Durbin/Schatz legislation to propose a qualitative restructuring of higher education accreditation. The bill is sitting with the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
Why Accreditation Bills and Initiatives Now?
Because quality and value of higher education require the attention of the federal government. Similarly, accreditation – both regional and specialized – has been the primary means of assuring the value of higher education for the last century.
The shared characteristics of these bills point the grander phenomenon: accelerated regulation. What truly began with the administration of Bush Jr., the Obama administration exponentiated. Wrought with chaos and distraction, it is still premature to offer conclusions about the Trump administration’s position, which I imagine the public will learn from Twitter at about 2:00 in the morning.
Regardless, we have reached a level of government oversight which has entangled higher education in a labrynth of regimentation.
Due to the fact that a favorable accreditation status is required for institutions to maintain access to Title IV programs (i.e., federal financial aid), the feds should be expected to continue to scrutinize accrediting bodies. In turn, institutions should expect to receive the brunt of the whole thing.
As of June 1, records indicate that $170 billion in student loans, research funding, categorical programs, and grants are awarded to institutions. The public ought to know what is happening with its money.
This has led to the emergence of over 200 separate compulsory compliance measures for accreditors. Some might argue that the government’s influence has taken disproportionate influence. But, while the oversight is draconian, the proportion of these debts remains sizable when viewed through the lens of national debt measures.
When Can Higher Education Rest?
Well, never. Good thing for those early retirement packages! There are many areas in which government is unnecessarily engaged in the decision-making of accreditors and relief would be appropriate. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s Position Paper on Regulatory Relief for Accreditation identifies ten of these, from government oversight whenever a college or university wants to make a major change such as a new campus or program to government telling accreditors what information must be public to government deciding what counts as college credit.
Let’s fantasize. What does relief actually look like? Get out your martini: congressional opposition of additional regulation, freezing of unsavory standardizing of accreditation. These two areas would be quite helpful for the faculty, administrators, and staff members charged with delivering high quality instruction.
Accreditation should be free to support and strengthen judgment of quality based on institutional mission, strengthening the valuable diversity of higher education.
Last, regulatory relief does not preclude accountability. Accreditors would still be held accountable for providing clear, reliable and readily accessible information to the public about the performance of institutions and programs, for meeting high expectations of rigor in quality review and for preserving as well as encouraging diversity and creativity in the service of students.
But, accountability and how you would want to show it is another conversation. I’ll table that for now.