Accreditation Fast Track?
Is the accreditation Catch-22 about to end? Makes too much sense, so probably not.

Quote:Accreditation Fast Track?
June 7, 2013
By Libby A. Nelson

WASHINGTON -- A proposal is circulating quietly on Capitol Hill to ask accreditors to create a new, more flexible form of approval for new and nontraditional providers of higher education.

The measure, a slight 37 words, contains few details about the new system it envisions. Its odds are long; so far, no lawmakers have volunteered to sponsor it. And its backers are few, albeit potentially influential: Bob Kerrey, the former New School president and Nebraska senator and governor, and Ben Nelson, the founder of the Minerva Project, the for-profit, startup online university with Ivy League-level ambitions. (Kerrey is executive chairman of the Minerva Institute for Research and Scholarship, a fledgling nonprofit established by the Minerva Project.)

Still, the proposal represents a shot across the bow at the traditional system of higher education accreditation, which has been under increasing pressure since the second half of the Bush administration. Margaret Spellings, the former education secretary, tried to take on the system through tighter scrutiny and new regulations, but met opposition in Congress.

Since then, the pressure has only grown. The issue even rose to the State of the Union address in February, when President Obama endorsed an alternative accreditation system based on "performance and results." Accreditation is expected to be a major focus when Congress begins rewriting the Higher Education Act, the law governing federal financial aid programs; last year, the federal panel reviewing accreditors offered its suggestions as to what lawmakers might do.

But Nelson and Kerrey hope Congress will act even sooner to urge accreditors to embrace innovation -- aiming to attach their proposal as an amendment to whatever legislation Congress votes on to resolve the student loan interest rate issue before July 1.

The measure would direct accreditors "to develop an expedited process by which new and innovative institutions that agree to enhanced oversight can earn accreditation prior to enrolling their first students." That approval, as the measure’s proponents imagine it, would not grant access to federal financial aid as full-blown accreditation does, but it would give a stamp of authority to providers before they enroll a single student.

To gain full accreditation, colleges must first be in existence for several years to undergo the rigorous, peer-reviewed process. Accreditors argue that this is necessary so that they can judge not only a college’s plan to educate its students but the effectiveness of that plan in action. But nontraditional providers say the time involved -- as well as what they describe as the clubby nature of accreditation, where already-existing colleges and universities decide who gets to join them -- raises too many barriers to entry. Accreditation, they argue, relies on an “if you build it, they will come” mentality. But without accreditation, they say, many students won’t.

New institutions can already get approval from states to grant degrees and become candidates for accreditation much more quickly than they can get accredited. But the candidacy process varies from accreditor to accreditor, and sets a college on the path to gain access to federal financial aid programs. In some cases, colleges must already have students enrolled to get candidate status. Kerrey and Nelson envision a more flexible system that can take more risks because it doesn't serve as a gatekeeper to federal dollars. "Anybody with a credible plan should effectively get accreditation," Nelson says. And that accreditation should be separate from access to financial aid, which he said could come "years down the road," after an educational program has proven effective.

Some accreditors have warned that their peers move too slowly in a fast-changing environment. Six months ago, Ralph Wolff, president of the senior college commission of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, argued that the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, the federal panel that recommends whether the Education Department should recognize accreditors, paid too little attention to whether accreditors are trying out new and more flexible approaches, even as many in Silicon Valley question the value of a college credential at all.

Uphill Climb

The proposal seems to face long odds. Members of Congress have seemed receptive, Kerrey says, but none have stepped up to sponsor it, and he admits that the immediate challenge of student loan interest rates has overwhelmed other higher education issues. Even if it makes its way into law, Congress can suggest that accreditors create a new form of accreditation, but there's no guarantee that accreditors will listen. (Congress could create another pathway to federal financial aid, bypassing peer-reviewed accreditation entirely, but many expect that would be both a practical and a political challenge.)

But the measure's proponents say it still sends a powerful signal that Congress is paying attention to accreditation. “I think they just need statutory encouragement; I don’t think they need to be beaten over the head and shoulders,” Kerrey says. Regional accreditors, he says, “tend to know more about what’s going on in higher ed than anybody out there because they’re constantly doing the reviews of the incumbents.”

Accreditors have traditionally fiercely resisted federal encroachment into their affairs. Some might be open to creating a provisional status for new programs, but that would be an entirely different process from accreditation, says Judith Eaton, president of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation.

“If you’re going to attempt to, in some way, sanction in a positive sense, legitimate an institution before it’s operating, which is what this says to me, it’s very, very different from accreditation as we know it,” Eaton says.

Those in favor of the measure say it would give accreditors permission to experiment without putting taxpayer money at risk through financial aid programs. And since many institutions choose to seek accreditation without using it as a gateway to federal financial aid, it proves that accreditors’ approval has other value as a signifier.

“The accrediting community and institutions are paying attention to signals,” says Amy Laitinen, deputy director of higher education at the New America Foundation. “If you have both the president talking about accreditation and Congress talking about accreditation, that sends a pretty clear message that folks aren’t necessarily satisfied with the state of affairs today.”

Another lingering question: Even if Congress passes the measure and accreditors fall in line, who might take advantage of the sort-of-but-not-really accreditation status it would create? Plenty of critics of traditional accreditation — Kerrey and Nelson among them — still add that they found the process valuable for their own colleges. Minerva plans to get its accreditation the old-fashioned way, partnering with an existing college.

Nelson is confident it will encounter few hurdles beyond the usual. “If you're Minerva, frankly, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “We're going to get our accreditation in whatever the pathway the regional accreditors would like. But there are not a lot of companies with our resources, with our standards.”

Despite the hurdles presented by accreditation, Minerva still sees its value, Nelson says. And he’s vague on who might use the new system he envisions if his own provider does not. He mentioned everything from Udacity, the provider of massive open online courses, to CodeAcademy, which offers interactive computer programming lessons.

But Nelson sees no less than the fate of American higher education in the balance. If accreditors can’t adapt and approve new ideas, drawing them into the establishment and the current system, he warns, they risk becoming irrelevant. He points to the chorus in some corners of Silicon Valley, promulgated mostly famously by the PayPal founder Peter Thiel, that a college degree is no longer necessary.

“For the sake of the longevity of the American higher education system, we think they just need to aggressively embrace innovation and innovators, and divorce the barrier to taxpayer funding from the barrier of oversight and accreditation,” Nelson says.

The question is whether Congress will agree. Kerrey, who retired from the Senate in 2000, says he knew little about accreditation until he became president of the New School. Many of his former colleagues in the Senate still aren’t familiar with the process, he says, and he’s had trouble gaining interest in his proposal. “Baseline enthusiasm is still relatively low,” he says.

But the fact that Minerva itself might not struggle to get accreditation, as its supporters assert, isn’t an endorsement of the current system, he says.

“From the standpoint of Minerva, it’s not in their interest to change it,” Kerrey says. “We’re working the process and should get regional accreditation, mostly because of the investments being made. We’re not going to have any difficulty finding a partner. But even that signals there’s something here that isn’t quite right.”

Thanks William W...that's good sound data...keeps me up to date, thanks again!
Quote:No Love for Accreditation
June 14, 2013
By Libby A. Nelson

WASHINGTON -- To hear members of Congress tell it, reauthorizing the Higher Education Act is looming on the near horizon of the legislative agenda -- even though most others here consider it a mirage that’s still years away. But when lawmakers do sit down to rewrite the law governing financial aid programs, accreditation will be under a particularly harsh spotlight.

That was clear at a hearing Thursday of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s subcommittee on higher education and workforce training, where a panel featured two representatives of accrediting agencies and two critics of traditional accreditation.

Members of Congress of both parties seemed to agree more with the critics, saying they were skeptical that traditional accreditation was flexible enough to respond to new developments in higher education. And panelists themselves didn’t pull any punches, leveling familiar charges against the traditional peer review system of accreditation that appear to be finding an increasingly receptive audience among policy makers.

Accreditation has been under increasing scrutiny in Washington for most of the past decade. During the second term of the Bush administration, former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings pursued changes to accreditation through regulation.

A federal panel overseeing accreditors offered its own suggestions for overhauling the system in a report issued last year, and a proposal is circulating on Capitol Hill -- so far without much traction -- to urge accreditors to develop a more flexible system of approval for new entrants to the higher education market.

Accreditation conveys a range of benefits for colleges and universities, but for many, its most important role is serving as a gateway to federal financial aid programs.

The last time around, it was Congress that pushed back on the Education Department’s attempts to change accreditation. This time, lawmakers seem open to an overhaul -- an idea often discussed but frequently dismissed as either impractical or politically impossible.

Both Representative Virginia Foxx, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the subcommittee, and Rubén Hinojosa, the Texas Democrat who is its ranking member, emphasized that traditional accreditation could do better at dealing with competency-based learning, massive open online courses and other innovations. Other members of Congress, especially Republicans, emphasized their concerns about what it costs institutions to pursue and keep accreditation.

President Obama entered the accreditation debate in February, in documents that accompanied the State of the Union address. The president called for changes to the criteria accreditors use to evaluate colleges to pay more attention to price and value, or for the creation of a new path to federal financial aid based on “performance and results.”

Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation, offered a blueprint for changes to the existing accreditation system and for the creation of a new system of approval for nontraditional providers. Accreditors should offer multiple tiers of accreditation to convey differences in quality, and documents from the accreditation process should be made public, Carey said.

He also called for an “accreditation fee” that colleges would pay directly to the Education Department, rather than to accreditors, to avoid what he described as the conflict of interest inherent in a system in which colleges are reviewed by a voluntary body to which they pay membership fees. The department would then distribute the money to accreditors based on volume but also on performance -- giving the federal government greater powers over accrediting agencies than it has now.

For nontraditional providers -- Carey used the example of a Nobel Prize-winning physician who wanted to create an online physics curriculum -- he urged a new system of course-level accreditation that would make those courses eligible for federal financial aid. Courses and programs would have to provide more information about student learning outcomes, and students would receive less financial aid than the per-course average for a traditional student -- a way policy approaches could be used to drive down the price of highe[r] education, Carey said.

Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and a longtime critic of accreditation, argued for breaking the link between accreditation and federal student aid, instead requiring colleges to be audited for financial stability and disclose data to the Education Department about student success.

While they appeared to agree with Carey’s critique, Congressional Republicans seemed wary of increasing the Education Department’s power over colleges. And some Democrats were skeptical of Neal’s claim that disclosure alone would be enough to control quality in higher education.

"We put a lot of transparency in the last higher ed bill, but unfortunately we don’t see that driving a lot of consumer decisions,” said Representative John Tierney, a Massachusetts Democrat.

The representatives of accrediting organizations -- Michale McComis, executive director of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, a national accreditor; and Elizabeth Sibolski, president of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education -- argued that the peer review system of accreditation is critical and that accreditors are working to promote innovation and create more flexible options for approval.

One frequent criticism of accreditation is it relies too much on “input” measures -- such as the proportion of professors with Ph.D.s -- rather than “outputs,” such as evidence of whether students are learning. But McComis said that while measuring outcomes are important, measuring inputs also provides valuable information about best practices. "To take away the regulatory or the oversight component seems counterintuitive,” he said.”There’s no evidence that institutions alone are going to produce any more quality or meet any more expectations than accreditation has been intended to produce.”

Middle States is in discussions with several of its institutional members about approving competency-based direct assessment programs, in which students are awarded credit based on what they’ve learned, not how much time they’ve spent in class, Sibolski said -- a clear attempt to answer the critique that innovation is not occurring under the current system. And she said the accreditor is aware of concerns about cost and speed in accreditation and is attempting to streamline its process.

The question, she said, is how to ensure “you’re doing a thorough job and still make sure that it is cost- effective and timely -- that’s a tough thing to try to negotiate.”

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