To understand their children’s progress in school, reasonable parents would likely look at their report cards, ask them how things are going, or talk to their teachers. But, were they to evaluate their children’s education the way colleges and universities are evaluated, parents would instead be metaphorically digging through their children’s backpacks and assessing the quality of their pens and paper.
Accreditation—the critical system for assessing whether institutions quality for federal financial aid—is too focused on inputs, such as faculty degrees and shared governance, and pays far too little attention to outcomes, such as graduation rates, job placement rates, and wage growth. This input-driven approach results in higher costs, as schools add complexity and features in order to meet accreditation standards. But it doesn’t protect students from enrolling in schools with low completion rates and weak return on investment.
As Congress looks to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, it has the power to change accreditation for the better.
How did we get here?
Our current system of accreditation was initially designed by colleges themselves, well before federal involvement in higher education. In the late 19th century, higher-education enrollment was expanding and the number of colleges was proliferating. This created problems for schools accepting transfer students from other institutions. As new colleges sprang up, there was considerable variability across even basic elements of their programs, such as whether high school completion was a requisite for admission. Accreditation was developed as a voluntary peer-review system to ensure that colleges within a given association had similar standards of preparation and academic rigor, thus facilitating transfers and articulating credits.
In the mid-20th century, the federal government began investing in higher education, first with the GI Bill, and then even more significantly with the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA). The government leaned heavily on the existing system of accreditation in order to determine which programs would be eligible for federal funds. Accreditation, which began as a private, voluntary system to solve specific problems of interoperability among institutions, now became the mechanism to guide federal investments in higher education.