The third rail of higher education reform

A student entering college today is more likely to leave with debt than a degree, and 31 million Americans have some college credit, but no degree or credential at all. Yet the degree is still the North Star for economic opportunity: a bachelor’s degree-holder earns one million dollars more over their lifetime than their peers with only a high school diploma.

While it may not receive the same splashy headlines as student debt, our accreditation system holds the key to ensuring the quality of America’s colleges and universities and strong stewardship of taxpayer dollars. Simply put, accreditation provides the stamp of approval that a college or university’s degrees and programs are valuable for students and enables institutions to participate in federal student aid programs, which taxpayers supported to the tune of $135 billion in the 2016-2017 academic year.

America’s approach to higher education quality is the result of decades of gradual policy change and arrangements between government and academe convenient at the time, but no longer adequate for community and workforce needs. Accreditation began as a regional process of voluntary peer review in the 19th century, but has turned into something very different.

Accreditors are the gatekeepers responsible for ensuring students only use federal student aid at high-quality institutions. Participating in federal financial aid is a benefit for students, not an entitlement for institutions. What does the federal government ask from institutions in return for their ability to participate?

Accreditation reform can put forward a better answer to that question that would represent a win for students, taxpayers and employers. It’s time for advocates and policymakers to take up accreditation reform. Here are several key steps to consider:

Make student outcomes the gold standard for quality. Students expect they will receive tangible value from their college experience and successful outcomes in exchange for rising college costs. Rather than focusing on outcomes that matter, our national accreditation policy is one of mandates, compliance and nannying colleges and universities. We should instead focus accreditors on the urgent business of ensuring institutions produce results that will strengthen our economy, our workforce and our national readiness.

Accrediting agencies are uniquely situated to assess specific student outcomes at institutions and, to some extent, already take them into account. For clearer aim, federal policymakers should flatten and simplify accreditation policy to a focus on three crucial student outcomes: graduation rates, default rates and loan repayment rates. Accreditation must be more than a rubber stamp; the first step is ensuring that accrediting agencies focus their limited time and resources on outcomes that matter to today’s students. Otherwise, institutions should receive an opportunity to improve, but then absent improvement, lose access to federal student aid.

Allow accreditors flexibility to focus on struggling and failing institutions. Most accreditors have been using roughly the same methods to assess and accredit all institutions equally, regardless of their financial, academic, and operational performance, though some are starting to use an approach that looks at an institution’s risk level. Federal policy should encourage a differentiated approach, since accreditors should not spend the same amount of time assessing institutions with long and demonstrated track records of high-quality outcomes as they do intervening with struggling institutions to help them improve.

Insist on consumer transparency. Accreditation’s importance may only be rivaled by its obscurity. The vast majority of students and taxpayers are unaware of the murky process that enables accreditors to approve hundreds of billions of dollars to go to colleges, private, public and for-profit alike. More concerning still, consumers are unlikely to find out about actions taken by accreditors against colleges and universities, such as probation or “show cause” orders giving an institution time to make the case for why they should continue to be accredited.

While some accreditors take this step voluntarily, not all of them do, evading an important transparency commitment and depriving consumers of important information about quality. Policymakers can improve public transparency by ensuring the release of information on which institutions have received sanctions, warnings and other negative actions because of poor performance.

Enable institutions to respond to workforce needs. Today’s students and voters overwhelmingly care about jobs and the economy. Yet too often, accreditation is an obstacle to higher education responding to workforce needs at the local level.

For example, if a new marine port opens in a community, the local community college could partner with an employer to develop a marine mechanics program and certificate. But becoming accredited could take months or years. In order for a student to take a non-credit-bearing course, they may have to rely on out-of-pocket dollars or sources other than federal student aid. This arrangement often results in students not earning credit for what they learn and no credential to stack with their past and future education.

A more agile accreditation system would update “substantive change” rules to allow colleges already in good standing to more quickly stand up high-quality programs directly related to workforce needs.

Reformers have long targeted accreditation, precisely because of its link to student aid, but seldom achieved tangible improvements. This complex, esoteric issue has slowly become a third rail in higher education politics. But bipartisan policymakers, advocates and accreditation leaders are now recognizing the urgency of modernizing our system of quality assurance and getting students and taxpayers the higher learning system they deserve.

Reforming accreditation must be more than a parlor game for Washington intellectuals to play. This issue can no longer wait, today’s students deserve better, and the time has come to act.

Emily Bouck is the policy and advocacy director at Higher Learning Advocates and previously served as deputy legislative director to U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).