Our existing higher education accreditation system—the means by which the federal government determines which colleges can receive certain federal funds and award recognized degrees—is a mess. For instance, it chokes off healthy competition by preventing innovative academic programs and courses from getting a foothold in the market. And even the accrediting agencies are beginning more seriously to consider changes to the system. Politico reported on a recent gathering of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation on the morning of the event’s first day:
The Future Is Now: Where Is Accreditation?” is something many higher ed policy wonks have been asking themselves lately — and it’s the theme of this year’s conference of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation [. . .]
“We’re convinced that significant change is upon us in accreditation, and the best thing that can happen is, indeed, that we lead it,” CHEA President Judith Eaton told Morning Education. Some of the ideas driving that change — risk-based institutional reviews, for example, or the need to move more quickly to revoke accreditation from a bad college actor like Corinthian — are “out of the comfort zone of, traditionally, what we have been doing for years,” she said. “This is what the public wants from us, and this is what government wants from us.”
A change like stripping failing schools of their federal subsidies could do some good on the margins. But, at the same time, if that means imposing more rigorous federal requirements, that could create its own set of problems: Colleges already spend an inordinate amount of money complying with regulations set by accreditors, and adding more might not only increase these costs but also make it even more difficult for promising new programs to get approved.
Perhaps a better approach could be to break the federal monopoly on accreditation by allowing other bodies, including local governments, corporations, and nonprofits, to accredit individual courses. This could give students greater flexibility, increase competition, and bring down overall higher education costs. But seeing how hesitant the current educational establishment is to accept changes to accreditation, don’t expect it to sign on to such a radical idea anytime soon.