Changing Credentials in College Accreditation

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The Education Department issues controversial revisions to college accreditation rules.

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Due to a recent rule issued by the U.S. Department of Education, the United States could soon see a nationwide explosion of access to brick-and-mortar college campuses and online learning programs. But will increased educational access come at the cost of quality control?

Opponents of the new rule on college accreditation and authorization for distance education argue that the widespread access it will promote carries widespread risks. The Education Department, on the other hand, defends its new rule as delivering on the Trump Administration’s promise to eliminate harmful government bureaucracy.

The five hundred-plus page rule is the first higher education regulation in almost a decade to result from a negotiated rulemaking, where agencies and non-government stakeholders build consensus on a proposed rule. The panel of 15 stakeholders included industry groups, two representatives of college students, and national and regional accrediting agencies.

The Education Department received 195 comments on its proposed rule, but the Department appears to have made few changes in the final version. The rule’s executive summary describes the rule as “eliminating artificial regulatory barriers” and providing greater flexibility for “innovative educational practices.”

Among other things, the final rule provides for faster agency approval of changes to a college’s academic programs. In addition, colleges can create new programs and branch campuses with less approval needed from their national or regional accreditors.

One major source of contention in the rulemaking was the Department’s supposed removal of language related to the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA), a template agreement which outlines national standards for distance and online education programs. Obama-era rules required online programs to prove that they were authorized to operate in any states in which they had students. Because virtually all states participate in the SARA, online programs could easily satisfy this requirement. In the recent Education Department rulemaking, however, disagreement reportedly arose over whether the final rule should allow states to enforce their own higher education laws above and beyond what SARA requires.

Negotiators ultimately removed the language allowing states to “layer” additional higher education requirements on top of reciprocity agreements like SARA, effectively barring states from enforcing any of their own laws that exceed SARA’s scope.

Observers criticize this decision as enabling online programs to evade state education laws, even when those programs are not providing quality instruction to students. In a press release, the Education Department contends that these and other changes will streamline the process and “provide students with more options to pursue a higher education credential of value.”

The far-reaching final rule will also eliminate geographic restrictions for accreditors and make it easier for them to become federally recognized. Relatedly, the Department will permit “dual accreditation” of institutions that are in the process of switching accreditors. The change could empower colleges to swap accreditors, if needed, and lower the barrier to entry for new accrediting agencies seeking to attract members.

The rule also extends the period in which accreditors can impose sanctions on colleges who fail to make needed improvements, extending it from a maximum of two years to now a maximum of four years in some cases. Opponents of this change argue that it weakens student protections more than it streamlines bureaucratic processes.

The Center for American Progress (CAP), a Washington, D.C.-based thinktank, said the rule will “ease already-lax oversight of the nation’s college accreditors” and “lead to more students going to schools ill-equipped to provide them a quality education.” CAP also says the rule will “enrich executives and shareholders of the nation’s most predatory colleges.”

Some groups, such as The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), condemned both the accreditation and state authorization changes. In a press release, TICAS lamented that the rule removed assurances that students can file complaints with their own state and with the state in which their school is located, which potentially makes “it harder for states to know if their students are being mistreated by out-of-state colleges.” Furthermore, the rule “lowers standards for accreditors” and “undermines accreditation as a reliable guide to college quality,” cautioned TICAS.

In a press release, the Education Department stated that “students should not face barriers to career entry and mobility, or to continuing education, based solely on which accreditor oversees the school they attended.” In the same release, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said that these changes “bring higher education into the current century” by rejecting “one-size-fits-all solutions” that do not fit the evolving education needs in this country’s economy.

Still, major stakeholders, such as the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC), which covers approximately 3,000 of the nation’s colleges and universities and was represented at the rulemaking, did not offer an effusive endorsement of the new rule. C-RAC noted in a press release that the final rule “largely maintains the integrity of the consensus” reached by negotiators and that the regulations should “overall…support our ongoing efforts.”

Even members of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), which advises the Department on accreditation matters and which was tasked with monitoring accreditors, have previously warned that changes like those adopted in the new rule will “spell trouble” and undo the progress NACIQI and accreditors have made in recent years.

The Education Department itself acknowledged that some accrediting agencies might react to the rule by taking steps that “lower their standards,” but the Department ultimately dismissed this outcome as unlikely due to the potential reputational harm to agencies.

Largely in response to the Education Department’s recent actions, Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives recently introduced the Accreditation Reform Act of 2020. The House bill would strengthen accreditation processes by shifting federal accreditor oversight review from a compliance-oriented approach to an investigative one designed to detect fraudulent activity by predatory for-profit institutions. Lead sponsor U.S. Representative Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) said that the reforms would increase transparency and help ensure that students have access to “high quality, affordable education.”