Why basing college accreditation on outcomes, not inputs, makes sense

Accreditation gates access to federal funds in higher education. Our current system of accreditation stifles innovation and doesn't do enough to protect students. A focus on outcomes could change that

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.

Amendments to the HEA have placed a rising burden on accreditors over time. The original 1965 act required only that schools be accredited; there were no requirements for how accreditors should conduct their reviews. The current version of the law specifically details how accreditors should operate, requiring them to evaluate schools across 10 specific criteria. Only one of those criteria pertains to student success and outcomes.

What can Congress do?

In a recent brief, we lay out three ways that Congress can help innovation thrive in higher education. With regard to accreditation, Congress should press accreditors to focus on a range of critical outcome measures appropriate to each school’s mission. Those metrics could include: learning assessments; graduation rates; student employment outcomes; salary growth; ability to repay student loans; return on investment (for both students and taxpayers); and graduate satisfaction.

Accreditors should be encouraged to focus primarily on whether institutions are creating value for students. Schools that do should be given wide latitude in how they do so. Institutions that do not create value for students should be heavily scrutinized.

In December, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce approved the PROSPER Act. The bill, which would update the HEA, would increase the transparency of some accreditation decisions and make it harder for institutions to “shop” for accreditors. Importantly, it streamlines the requirements placed on accreditors and collapses the 10 standards down to one, mandating simply that accreditors focus on “the institution’s success with respect to student learning and educational outcomes.”

This is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t give accreditors enough power to use their judgment in evaluating schools. Instead, the bill would allow schools to choose which metrics should apply to them — akin to letting the fox select the locks on the henhouse.

Dr. Barbara Brittingham, President of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education at the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, rightly pointed out in her recent testimony to the Senate HELP Committee that major innovations are underway in higher education. But our current input-driven approach punishes innovation and tolerates mediocrity.

Rather than regulating how schools organize their inputs, Congress should task accreditors with evaluating whether they are achieving desirable outcomes—for students, taxpayers, and the workforce.

This post was originally published on The Christensen Institute’s blog here.

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