Federalizing Accreditation: A Quandary for Higher Education

February 16, 2011

Judith S. Eaton

We have reached the end – or at least a pause – in the negotiated rulemaking and related activities affecting accreditation in the wake of the Higher Education Opportunity Act signed into law in August 2008. As the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) has regularly informed the community, the 2008 reauthorization and accompanying rules developed in 2009 and 2010 have significantly enlarged the federal footprint in academic decision-making.

Primarily driven by the quest for greater accountability, the government has focused on “federalizing” accreditation, creating both challenge and conflict for accrediting organizations as well as colleges and universities. On the one hand, the academic community turns to accreditation to address not only quality but also accountability. On the other hand, accreditation finds itself increasingly managed and directed by the federal government.


What, precisely, does “federalizing” accreditation mean? Where is the government going – that it has not gone before? How can accreditation – nongovernmental, created by institutions and independent – have become a conduit for federal authority? If the enterprise is federalized and institutions must be accredited to receive federal funds, how can institutions retain their academic leadership role and independence in the face of increasing direction by the federal government about how to judge academic quality?

“Federalizing” accreditation refers to growth of requirements in federal law that accreditors must meet as condition of being recognized by the federal government, especially in the academic area. The requirements are intended for institutions, with law or regulation typically stating: “The accrediting organization is required to assure that Institution X does....”

The federal government now has at least some legal or regulatory authority in these academic areas, all traditionally the province of the faculty and institutions:

  • Credit hour: The latest rules define this fundamental unit of academic work and require institutions to use it as a minimum basis for credit determination for federal purposes.
  • Transfer of credit: The law requires a policy, that it be published and that it include criteria for transfer decisions.
  • Distance learning: The law requires that institutions track student identity.
  • Enrollment growth: The law requires that institutions monitor enrollment growth.

With regard to student learning outcomes, an issue at the heart of government concerns, particularly worrisome are the compliance elements in a new Guidelines for Preparing/Reviewing Petitions and Compliance Reports released in August 2010. The Guide goes to the core of faculty academic decision-making, focusing not only on student outcomes, but also on judgments about general education requirements, curriculum design, appropriate academic standards and acceptable faculty credentials.

Moreover, the community’s space for academic decision-making may be further constrained by new rules governing state authorization. There is considerable confusion about the meaning of the regulatory language in this area. It may require that states not only authorize institutions to operate but now also monitor that operation, affecting both public and private institutions, in some cases mirroring accreditation.

In addition, the daily operation of accrediting organizations themselves is affected. There are new controls on what accrediting organizations can and cannot tell their accredited institutions. In certain situations, the government may even seek information about an institution and the accreditor is prohibited from informing the institution of the inquiry. Accreditors now must scrutinize institutions more frequently when the latter undergo major changes such as establishing new campuses or substantially increasing online course offerings. The process by which institutions can appeal accrediting organization decisions has been redesigned by Congress, including requiring the participation of attorneys in the appeal process. There are federal requirements associated with training of accreditation teams.

We are beginning to see an unfortunate impact of this detailed oversight. More and more often, accreditors are forced to view their work through the lens of “What does the federal government want?” – in contrast to the traditionally more productive question of “How do we work with institutions and programs to enhance quality in the service of students?”

Most recently, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity that advises the Secretary of Education held a policy forum on February 3-4 to address many of the fundamentals of the federal government-accreditation relationship. The discussion focused on compliance and improvement in accreditation, the role of accreditation and whether there is a need for common standards, among other topics.

The Quandary for Institutions

Institutions are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. As colleges and universities attempt to do more about accountability, they often turn to accreditation. However, as accreditation is federalized, turning to these organizations is becoming tantamount to accepting federal authority over academic areas. The implications for institutional autonomy, academic freedom and the academic leadership role of the academy are severe. When the community yields its responsible independence to determine academic direction to an outside party, in this case the federal government, the loss is great – even if there is agreement about where we are to go.

Yet, the quest for greater accountability will remain prominent and persistent. At the heart of the calls is the demand that colleges and universities provide more information especially about student learning outcomes. From the public, the calls are driven by a society that has quickly accustomed itself to instant information via the Internet, Facebook and YouTube. We are increasingly invested in the view that trust is possible only with greater and greater transparency. For the federal government, a principal driver is the growth of federal investment in higher education, especially student grants and loans, accompanied by a sense of urgency related to value for federal money.

The last six months of a national spotlight on for-profit higher education is a case study in current accountability demands. Education is essential. Its costs are borne through a combination of public subsidy and personal indebtedness, neither of which is easily sustained in the current painful economic conditions. Both government and the public believe, whether warranted or not, that they do not know enough about the quality of education. Much of this discussion centers on the lack of information about student learning outcomes. This, in turn, fuels federal efforts and public calls to manage the academy through accreditation.

Where does this leave us? If we continue on the current path, we are enabling not only federalized accreditation, but federalized colleges and universities. While we have and need to honor accountability to the federal government on a number of fronts, the academic arena need not and should not be one of these.

Ignoring the reality of what is happening to accreditation is our greatest danger. We have reached a decision point in the federal – accreditation relationship. For those in the community who believe that increased federal control of accreditation and higher education is not harmful to our enterprise, there is no cause for concern.

But for those who believe, as does CHEA, that it is precisely the traditional, disciplined distance of government authority over higher education that has enabled the establishment of our diverse, effective and highly respected higher education enterprise, it is time for action, especially from our colleges and universities.