Accreditation Fast Track?

WASHINGTON — A proposal is circulating quietly on Capitol Hill to ask accreditors to create a new, more flexible form of approval for new and nontraditional providers of higher education.

The measure, a slight 37 words, contains few details about the new system it envisions. Its odds are long; so far, no lawmakers have volunteered to sponsor it. And its backers are few, albeit potentially influential: Bob Kerrey, the former New School president and Nebraska senator and governor, and Ben Nelson, the founder of the Minerva Project, the for-profit, startup online university with Ivy League-level ambitions. (Kerrey is executive chairman of the Minerva Institute for Research and Scholarship, a fledgling nonprofit established by the Minerva Project.)

Still, the proposal represents a shot across the bow at the traditional system of higher education accreditation, which has been under increasing pressure since the second half of the Bush administration. Margaret Spellings, the former education secretary, tried to take on the system through tighter scrutiny and new regulations, but met opposition in Congress.

Since then, the pressure has only grown. The issue even rose to the State of the Union address in February, when President Obama endorsed an alternative accreditation system based on "performance and results." Accreditation is expected to be a major focus when Congress begins rewriting the Higher Education Act, the law governing federal financial aid programs; last year, the federal panel reviewing accreditors offered its suggestions as to what lawmakers might do.

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