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A High-Stakes Moment: Accreditation, the Federal Government and Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act

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Reauthorization of the 1965 Higher Education Act is where the federal government, colleges and universities, and accreditation periodically decide their relationship. The Act defines their respective roles when it comes to quality. Reauthorization is always important to accreditation. This time around, with the latest effort getting underway, reauthorization is a high-stakes moment.

Going back to the U.S. Department of Education's Spellings Commission in 2005-06, Congress and the executive branch have been devaluing accreditation as a reliable source of quality review. Yet, for years, the federal government relied on accreditation, a nongovernmental scrutiny of the quality of institutions and programs during which academic peers do a standards-based review to assure and improve the quality of colleges and universities. Accreditation had been treated as a respected partner in meeting the public policy goals of access and quality. This has given way to treating accrediting organizations as arms of the government, lacking in competence and needing constant scrutiny.

We have reached a point where federal involvement in judging quality is decisive about the academic functions of colleges and universities: curriculum, credit hours, transfer, online learning. Government is telling accreditors what counts as quality and directly managing accreditation's operation too. Will this reauthorization bring a ministry of education into our midst? This is indeed a high-stakes question.

All of this does not bode well for the core values that make up the foundation of accreditation and are essential to the strength of higher education. These values -- peer review of quality, institutional autonomy and academic freedom -- cannot survive a government ministry. While they will likely not disappear, they will be diminished to the point where the practices associated with them no longer drive intellectual development and judgment of academic quality.

To better understand the high-stakes moment, we need only to listen to what lawmakers tell us they want from accreditation -- and are not getting. We need only to examine recent efforts at legislation and regulation affecting colleges, universities and accrediting organizations. While some lawmakers acknowledge that accreditation has some strength and value, these same officials move quickly to make explicit their criticisms and disappointment.

One lawmaker recently told me that accreditation is just plain weak when it comes to quality. Unless accreditors ramp up and provide more effective quality control, the process is just not adequate in today's world. Another lawmaker said that accreditation will become irrelevant and replaceable, perhaps by something like Angie's List -- unless accreditors step up to meet the needs of students and the market, making sure that students get the education they need. A third said that accreditation is discouraging new providers from coming into higher education because traditional institutions, the backbone of accreditation, do not want the competition. New entrants can gain accreditation, but at the price of looking more like what traditional institutions find acceptable. In other words, the more innovative a new provider is, the less likely it is to achieve accreditation.

Lawmakers are impatient. Already, even before we have a reauthorization bill, other legislative efforts and initiatives are in play. The president's college-ratings system, a federal effort to categorize institutions based on their performance, would decide what academic quality is. Bills have been introduced that give government authority to establish minimum accountability standards; expand state control over accreditation; establish a central database of information on accreditation; provide additional oversight of the for-profit sector, including extensive reporting requirements for student achievement; and require states to create articulation agreements, including a common core for lower-division work, common course number and guaranteed transfer of some associate degrees.

What accreditation plans to do at this high-stakes moment -- the political or policy moves -- will eventually emerge. One thing about this reauthorization is clear right now. Accreditors and institutions need to do everything they can to sustain peer review, institutional autonomy and academic freedom. Reauthorization is an opportunity to make a powerful case for the importance of these values. Absent such action, colleges and universities stand to lose a great deal. Students and society will be shortchanged. The rich and vibrant tradition of intellectual development that has characterized higher education will be diminished.