Independent accreditors periodically review colleges and universities to ensure their quality. But the process doesn't emphasize outcomes like graduation rates and affordability, and it doesn't prevent the emergence of bad actors like some for-profit colleges. Advanced education has become an all but essential qualification for good-paying jobs, yet many institutions still struggle to graduate students at a reasonable cost and with good employment prospects.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida recently called accreditation a "biased and broken system," noting that the process is controlled largely by traditional two and four-year colleges and universities. But the main problem with accreditation isn't that it prevents innovation, as Rubio argued in a speech outlining his vision for improving access and affordability in higher education. It's that accreditation doesn't provide adequate consumer protection.
Here's how the system currently works: There are 85 independent organizations that accredit colleges and universities, and each sets its own standards. The accreditation process largely depends on self-reporting by institutions, peer review, and evaluations from higher-education experts. Only accredited institutions can receive federal support like financial aid.
For accreditors that focus on specific programs, such as law and medicine, standards are often tied to professional licensing requirements. But regional accreditation standards, which must apply to a wide range of institutions from trade schools to flagship universities, are left purposely vague. "It's a professional judgment call. It's not driven purely quantitatively," says Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, an association of colleges and accreditors.
To see just how vague, check out the warning the for-profit University of Phoenix received from its accreditor last year. The criteria the university must improve, according to a public disclosure notice from the Higher Learning Commission, include: "The institution demonstrates a commitment to educational achievement and improvement through ongoing assessment of student learning." The university's low retention and graduation rates and high student-loan default rates are a concern, but are not criteria the accreditor is actively monitoring.
When Rubio brought up accreditation in his remarks at a National Journal event last week, it was to argue that the system blocks innovation by favoring existing forms of higher education. He suggested that Congress create an independent accreditor to validate the quality of nontraditional forms of education, such as free online courses, and allow them to count toward a degree. Such accreditation allow students to receive federal financial aid for novel forms of education that could be lower cost and easier to fit into a busy schedule than a multi-year program on a physical campus.
"What frustrates me and many people is, that learning is already out there," Rubio said. "You can already take an economics course from MIT or Harvard or Stanford or online. But you can't get credit for it, towards a certifiable degree, unless you're enrolled in a degree program at a college that will package it for you."
It's true that only accredited institutions can offer degrees, under the current system. But growing numbers of colleges and universities do give credit for the types of learning Rubio described. For example California's John F. Kennedy University is working to allow students to receive credit for edX courses, which are massive open online courses provided by elite institutions.
The American Council on Education's College Credit Recommendation Service has been translating nontraditional learning into college credit since the 1970s. ACE has created credit recommendations for military service, job training, and some free online courses. It is also considering how credit might be awarded for Mozilla Open Badges, which are online representations of skills.
It's always up to individual institutions to decide what they'll accept for credit. In general, the more elite an institution is, the less likely it is to accept credit from non-accredited sources.
Rubio would like students to be able to package work experience, life skills, classroom instruction, and free online coursework into something equivalent to a degree. But this could happen without an act of Congress. There's nothing to prevent a new or existing independent accreditor from evaluating new types of advanced education or reviewing the kind of degree equivalents Rubio described.
Rubio explained that the expansion of accreditation he suggested wouldn't happen overnight. "I don't think you want to start right away and say, 'And here's a flow of federal dollars that will go to you,' " he said, noting that it's important to ensure quality and build consumer and employer trust in new forms of advanced education.
"There are risks as well as potential rewards" to opening the market to new providers, says Michael Dannenberg, director of higher education and education finance policy at the Education Trust. For one thing, there are existing for-profit and nonprofit institutions that take advantage of vulnerable, underinformed students and families, and it's important to make sure that phenomenon doesn't worsen in an expanded system. It's possible that the packaged degrees Rubio described could create a parallel higher education system, with less prestige and investment in students than traditional two and four-year degrees.
Lawmakers no longer want to sit back and let colleges and universities perform their own quality control. President Obama has proposed a college rating system that would tie federal money to outcomes like graduation rates and affordability. State legislatures are tweaking higher-education funding formulas to reward certain outcomes. Rubio and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have put forward a bill that would require institutions to release more data on the return on investment students can expect from certain degree programs.
Eaton says she supports the release of more information about the performance of an institution, but she worries about a system that would let legislators dictate what quality means in higher education. However, there might be room for legislators to take a bigger role in ensuring federal funds are well spent. "It's up to the federal government to be evaluating use of federal funds like student aid," Eaton said. "That's not an accreditor's job."
The event that Rubio, other education leaders and students appeared at last week at Miami Dade College was underwritten by the Bill and Melinda Gates; Rockefeller; and Annie E. Casey foundations.
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.