Why Meaningful Accreditation Reform Isn’t in Our Future #ThanksAlexander

Blog Post
Nov. 6, 2015
Today, the Department of Education announced a series of executive actions it would take, as well as legislative proposals it would offer, to help bring “quality assurance” to the supposed quality assurance process of accreditation. While it’s good to see the Department addressing the issue with proposals to publish information about accreditors standards (or lack of standards), align the scorecard outcome data with accreditors, and provide information about why schools are on probation, these are not game changers. But it’s about as far as the Department can go without Congress to bring meaningful transparency or accountability to the gatekeepers of $130 billion a year in financial aid. This state of affairs is no accident. Congress, encouraged by the higher education lobby, has tied the Department’s hands—and one of the chief proponents of maintaining the status quo is now the Chairman of the Senate HELP Committee.

At first blush, you would think that the prospects that Congress would reform accreditation were good. Talking about accreditation reform is currently all the rage on Capitol Hill. Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) have introduced a bill calling for an alternative, outcomes-based, accreditation process. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has held hearings on the issue and singled out accreditation as one of three key challenges facing higher education (and presumably areas that he would like to tackle through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act). His accreditation paper nicely laid out the problems with a peer-based voluntary system designed for a completely different purpose serving as the gatekeeper for federal financial aid. Educational quality was cited as the first major problem with accreditation, and the section went through the litany of research showing poor attainment and learning outcomes at our nation’s (accredited) higher education institutions. The first recommendation in the paper was, therefore, to “Refocus Accreditation on Quality.” An encouraging sign, right? Well…maybe, until you remember that it was Alexander who pushed back strongly on accreditation reform efforts in 2008 and sponsored legislation that made transparency and accountability harder.

In the wake of the Spellings Commission nearly 10 years ago, the higher ed lobby went into full gear, pushing back on transparency and accountability on every level, including in the realm of accreditation. And it largely got what it wanted. One of its biggest champions was the former college president, former governor, and former Secretary of Education, Senator Lamar Alexander.

In July 2008, after House and Senate lawmakers got together to hash out their differences over legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, Senator Alexander used some of his allotted time on the Senate floor to take credit for one provision of the bill:

I authored the restrictions prohibiting the Secretary of Education from regulating student learning standards or requiring accreditors to adopt specific measures of learning assessment, which would have been additional federalizing of our 6,000 autonomous institutions.

Yup, Senator Alexander was proud of preventing the Department of Education from asking accreditors about student outcomes --the very same (poor) outcomes that he decried in his recent white paper. And although he seemingly recognizes the problem, he doesn’t seem to have a solution for it. He said as much in his opening remarks at his June accreditation hearing: “It’s important to find a way to make accreditation work better. I have had a hard time thinking of another way to do this…If the accreditors don’t do it, I can assure you the Congress can’t. And the Department of Education I don’t believe has the capacity or the know-how.”

His reluctance or unwillingness to demand these institutions to address quality, however, means that institutions and accreditors are off the hook. Off the hook for over $130B a year in taxpayer dollars and loans that students have to repay for an education that may not have been worth it.

So, while it’s encouraging to see the Department try to do what they can with the little authority they have, it’s depressing to see that Congress, which could actually make a difference, is likely to do nothing other than maintain the status quo. #ThanksAlexander"