In our opinion: Allowing competition among accreditation boards is vital to promote innovation in higher education

Published: Monday, May 5 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

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Educational institutions in the United States have long relied on a peer-reviewed accreditation process to ensure the quality of the instruction students receive. Without the stamp of approval of a qualified accreditation board, colleges and universities lack the credibility necessary to attract students and raise the money necessary to operate.

This arrangement means that accreditors wield a tremendous amount of power over colleges and universities, thereby creating a system with tremendous potential for abuse.

As we wrote in 2011, “Until the 1950s, accreditation was entirely private — a kind of 'Good Housekeeping' seal of approval within higher education. But the federal government enlisted private accreditation agencies to ensure the quality of colleges and universities using G.I. Bill funds after learning that some veterans had squandered funds at fly-by-night ‘degree mills.’ And these now federally approved accreditation agencies became even more important when federal funding for higher education expanded with the Higher Education Act of 1965.

“In the U.S. there are nearly 4,500 institutions of higher learning serving more than 20 million students. However the regulatory dominance of six regional accreditors, each exclusively lording over one geographic region, stifles innovation.”

Fortunately, other national voices are beginning to realize the problem with the accreditation monopoly. Nationally syndicated columnist Michael Gerson wrote last week, “The student loan system makes it easier for students to pay more than they can afford and so for schools to charge more than they are worth, while the accreditation system restricts experiments with new methods of teaching and learning.”

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has also seized upon this problem. Earlier this year he introduced the Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act in order to create new alternatives to the existing system, and to help break out of “the iron triangle of regional accreditation organizations, the schools and federal bureaucrats.”

His bill would allow all of the states the ability to develop their own systems for accrediting universities, curricula, program and courses. In turn, all accredited programs would be permitted to receive federal student loan money.

That kind of legislation creating alternative routes to accreditation is a definite step in the right direction. And because the bill would allow states to accredit individual courses, and not just institutions as a whole, it could help eliminate a great deal of educational bureaucracy.

Schools that run afoul of existing monopoly accreditors currently have nowhere else to go. But state accreditors might still be able to empower regional accreditors with veto power. The key to solving the problem is competition.

Currently, regional accreditors are emboldened by a section of federal law that refers to a “geographic scope of accrediting activities.” A simple word-change making it clear that accrediting bodies operate nationally — not just within a particular region — would open the marketplace for accreditation services throughout the country. This would allow institutions to innovate in curriculum and other aspects of their operations without risking a negative review by a regional accreditor.

Allowing competition among accreditation bodies is necessary to promote innovation in higher education. We applaud the increased attention to this important effort.

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