How to end the chicken-and-egg accreditation games around access to federal dollars

accreditation-higher-educationSylvia Manning, former president of the regional accrediting agency, the Higher Learning Commission, who was also infamously embroiled in the closure of Altius Education, has published a paper with the American Enterprise Institute on—ironically—how to make way for innovation through accreditation.

In this report, Manning describes a chicken-and-egg conundrum of accreditation: new institutions cannot get accredited unless they have students, but in order to have students, you need to attract them with access to financial aid. In other words, she explains, it “is not possible to both preserve the time test of accreditation and hurry up accreditation for new institutions.”

Manning draws a useful analogy between this chicken-and-egg problem and construction/occupancy permits: “In higher education, accreditation is the occupancy permit that allows a school to operate, yet there is no building permit equivalent to facilitate new entrants coming into the market.”

Her solution therefore is to create the equivalent of a building permit for higher education institutions so that they can at least be “provisionally approved for federal student financial aid.”

It sounds logical to think of alternatives to this serious barrier to entry, especially given that it seems unlikely that accreditation will suddenly disappear anytime soon. Manning’s building permit, however, is a conservative argument for further reliance on a broken system that sustains and protects the trajectory of established institutions while inevitably erecting barriers to keep entrants out. Indeed, in her defense of accreditation, Manning actually underscores how agencies are ill equipped to foster radically different forms of education. Consider these key phrases from her report:

  • Accreditation per se is not a barrier to innovation, but it is inherently conservative. Yet there are good reasons for its being conservative and good reasons not to make it any less so.
  • Accreditation agencies have no particular interest in the status quo, but they approach with caution any radical elimination of the basic conditions that have underpinned sustainable institutions.

Such statements unfortunately do not, as she asserts, “la[y] to rest the canard about accreditation and innovation.” Rather, they make obvious that “new” in Manning’s parlance is not necessarily synonymous with “innovative.” Provisional access to Title IV dollars may work as a potential stopgap but serves primarily as a sustaining innovation. Manning views this as a way to “pu[t] an end to the demands that accreditation change its standards or procedures….”

This paper reinforces that all roads still lead to accreditation. Manning does not question accreditation as the gatekeeper to federal funds even though it was never, in the words of AEI authors Rick Hess and Andrew Kelly, “intended to serve an external accountability role.”

(Next page: The need for alternative learning providers)


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