In an attempt to force colleges to produce better outcomes for students, the Obama administration announced today that it would require federally sanctioned accrediting agencies to start cracking the whip more aggressively. Inside Higher Education reports:
The Obama administration is trying to ratchet up already growing pressure on accrediting agencies to focus more intently on whether colleges are graduating students with the skills they need to get jobs and repay their loans.
Officials on Friday unveiled a package of “executive actions” aimed at cracking down on college accreditors, which the administration argues are not holding colleges to high enough standards when it comes to evaluating the success of students.
The actions are far less aggressive than many accreditation experts had anticipated, and the administration said that it was significantly constrained by a Congressional ban on the Education Department setting specific accreditation standards involving student outcomes. But the relatively limited actions were accompanied by a much more aggressive set of proposals on the administration’s legislative wish list.
It’s easy to understand why this administration—like the Bush administration before it—is taking this approach to improving higher education quality. After all, far too many students graduate from expensive degree programs without the skills they need to stay afloat after college—especially when you add in the weight of their student loan debts. Toughening accreditation requirements seems like it could force colleges to up their game.
But efforts like this are likely to only improve quality on the margins, if at all. The primary effects of the existing accreditation system are to protect existing institutions, shut alternative educational delivery methods out of the marketplace, and hike tuition costs by forcing campuses to comply with onerous and often irrelevant requirements.
The existing system could surely be tweaked or improved, as the administration is trying to do—but a far better alternative would be to break the federal monopoly on accreditation altogether. As of now, only federally approved agencies can accredit educational programs. Allowing private institutions (including companies and nonprofits) to credential individual courses would give students more flexibility to pick an educational path that suits their needs and inject competition into an industry where it is sorely needed.