Accreditation and the Next Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act

June 3, 2013

Judith S. Eaton

With the U.S. House of Representatives initiating hearings in April 2013 and seeking comment on the Higher Education Act (HEA) by August 2013, we know that reauthorization is here. We are on a road to change, however long this may take. The accrediting community is entering this road with some concern and apprehension that the federal government has already established a strong role in academic decision-making, challenging peer review and diminishing self-regulation. Congress and the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) enter this highway with clear expectations of the role they want accreditation to play, equipped with significantly expanded tools for direct oversight of the accreditation process as well as colleges and universities.

What will this reauthorization mean for traditional accreditation and its 60-year partnership with the federal government? Will this relationship, once characterized by deference to academic expertise in judging academic performance and public confidence in self-regulation and peer review, be coming to a close? Or will the reauthorization be an opportunity to reframe the accreditation-federal government relationship such that the ideals and value of accreditation can be sustained?


The major features of the government’s current expectations of accreditation and quality have been before us for some time. Quality is defined as compliance with federal law and regulation in relation to employment, graduation, consumer protection, transparency and affordability. Needed innovation in higher education requires government direction and assistance, including federal review of institutions even after accreditation review.

For quality in colleges and universities, the government is relying on tools such as Web-based interactive data sets, College Navigator and College Scorecard, that enable students and the public to compare admission requirements, tuition, available student aid, retention and graduation rates as well as employment after graduation. For the operation of accrediting organizations, USDE is relying not only on more expansive law and regulation, but also a Guide for Preparing/Reviewing Petitions and Compliance Reports.1 The 82-page Guide, initially developed in 2010, has come to function as a detailed checklist required of all accreditors, emphasizing compliance with federal regulation – rather than peer-based review - as needed to judge quality.

How We Got Here


The federal government has not always approached quality and accreditation in this fashion. The current perspective is grounded in a 2006 U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education report that was strongly critical of colleges, universities and nongovernmental accreditation. Accreditation was called upon to provide more robust public accountability, to strengthen the rigor and thoroughness of its reviews, take responsibility for what were characterized as higher education’s limitations in serving students and serve as a catalyst, not a barrier (as alleged in the report) to educational innovation.

Some of the commission’s criticism became part of the foundation for the 2008 reauthorization of HEA. In the name of perceived inadequacies in accreditation, additions to the law included expanded federal oversight of academic areas such as transfer of credit, enrollment growth and distance learning, penetrating the arena of academic activity that had traditionally been the province of academic faculty.

Efforts to expand federal influence over accreditation accelerated as a new administration took office in 2009. Crucially, the 2009-2010 negotiated rulemaking (government consultation with constituents as part of establishing new or revised regulation) resulted in a federal definition of “credit hour,” the fundamental building block of curricula, to be enforced by accreditors. This meant that faculty no longer have full responsibility for determining the credits associated with courses and programs. This action positioned the federal government to influence college and university curricula throughout higher education.

A 2012 report from the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), the group of academic, policy and public leaders assisting the U.S. Secretary of Education in making judgments about the federal recognition of accreditors, advanced two vital recommendations for action that further expanded the government’s role. First, the report deemed quality assurance – not only quality – to be a federal interest. Second, the report viewed it as desirable at least to explore common standards across all accrediting organizations, especially for regional accreditation. The first action justifies the USDE role in directing the operation of accrediting organizations. The second action can establish a foundation for government judgment about academic quality based on the same national expectations for all colleges and universities.

With the convening of a new Congress and the annual State of the Union in 2013 came an unusual and notable mention of accreditation. The document accompanying the State of the Union was explicit, that if traditional accreditation could not meet expectations, then “a new, alternative system of accreditation” could be developed, presumably by the federal government. In April, the administration’s proposed 2014 budget reinforced this view by calling for “quality validation systems run by independent parties” focused on college completion or “third-party validation systems that identify competencies, assessments and curricula for specific fields.”

The last seven years, then, have left us with accrediting organizations subject to greater oversight and regulation, greater government engagement of academic issues, data sets that provide the opportunity for government judgment about quality and talk about alternative accreditation systems. We enter reauthorization with government now playing a more decisive role in making judgments and setting expectations of academic quality than at any time in the past.

Reauthorization Options

As of now, the most likely result of the next reauthorization is continued expansion of legislation and regulation that sustains government control. This means more direct government authority over the operation of accrediting organizations – their standards, policies and processes. It means the continued growth of federal review of individual institutions, in addition to accreditation. It means the federal government expanding its influence in the defining and judging of academic quality.

For institutions and accreditors troubled by this development, we need to make a compelling case for an alternative scenario: a streamlining of the current federal review of accrediting organizations, perhaps using the current federal interest in reducing regulation overall. This would include diminishing the extent and detail of oversight of accreditation and rethinking the distribution of responsibilities between accreditation and USDE such as oversight of student aid. This response would be an effort to re-establish the practice of “holding higher education and accreditation accountable for quality” that used to prevail between the federal government and accreditation and ending the prescriptiveness and granularity of current federal practice when it comes to accreditation and the quality of colleges and universities.

Beyond reacting to what is before us, institutions and accreditors also need to energetically make a powerful public case for the many accomplishments of the accreditation and academic communities in providing sustained, robust leadership for quality and appropriate accountability. The evidence is there but not adequately marshaled or deployed.

The academic and accreditation communities place enormous emphasis on student achievement, have focused intently on a completion agenda, are embracing innovation and have made huge strides in transparency and student protection. But we would not know this from reading opinion leaders in the education and general press. We would not know this listening to Congress and USDE. Perhaps this is because, at the same time, we affirm our commitment to intellectual development as well as economic development, just as we remain committed to the effectiveness and value of peer review, academic freedom and responsible institutional self-determination. While we accreditors and academicians understand that the combination of peer-based quality review and appropriate accountability provides the greatest benefit to students, we have yet to persuade significant others.

Alternatively, accreditors may decide “enough is enough” and depart the gatekeeping relationship with the federal government. Is this option realistic for accreditors of institutions? What would the end of the partnership mean for colleges and universities? Approximately half a dozen programmatic accreditors have done this over the past ten years. These organizations have determined that they do not need the federal partnership to serve students and society.

Finally, we need to anticipate yet additional steps that government may take. This might include the development of a federal accreditation system as briefly described in the State of the Union document and the 2014 budget, either alongside traditional accreditation or in its place. This system could involve primary emphasis on examination of institutional performance through, e.g., graduation rates, retention, transfer, employment and affordability, with student aid tied to performance. The tools presently available to government might expand to include (1) bright-line expectations of threshold institutional performance, (2) institutional reporting on performance and (3) triggers if performance does not meet bright line expectations. Federal review of institutional performance would augment or replace traditional accreditation focused on academic quality.

The reauthorizations of 1992 and 1998 had a powerful effect on colleges, universities and accreditation. The many changes that resulted did not, however, alter the fundamentals of the operation and aspirations of accreditation. The reauthorization initiated in April, building on 2008, may emerge as pivotal: This will be the reauthorization that determines whether and to what extent traditional accreditation is to be sustained.

1This review, known as “recognition,” is required of all accrediting organizations that function as “gatekeepers” or reliable authorities on academic quality, providing access to federal funds. Recognition reviews must take place at least every five years.