Mend It, Don’t End It

About two-thirds of the way through the first day of the Education Department’s two-day forum on higher education accreditation, something strange happened: a new idea emerged.

Not that the conversation that preceded it was lacking in quality and thoughtfulness. The discussion about higher education’s system of quality assurance included some of the sharper minds and best analysts around, and it unfolded at a level that was quite a bit higher than you’d find at, say, the typical Congressional hearing.

The discussion was designed to help the members of the Education Department’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity understand the accreditation system, so it included a wide range of voices talking about many aspects of quality, regulation and oversight in higher education. The exchanges served largely to revisit history and frame the issues in a way that probably seemed familiar, at least to those who follow accreditation closely.

The basic gist on which there was general agreement:

  • Higher education accreditation is imperfect (seriously so, in the eyes of some), with many commentators citing how rarely the agencies punish colleges and how inscrutable and mysterious their process is to the public.
  • Politicians and regulators are asking accrediting agencies to do things they were never intended to do, like make sure colleges don’t defraud students.
  • Despite those flaws, most seemed less than eager to try to create a wholly different system to assure the quality of America’s colleges and universities, because they see it as either difficult or undesirable.

Yet given Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s formal charge to the newly reconstituted panel, which was distributed at its first formal meeting in December, most of the higher education and accreditation officials who attended the policy forum said they had little doubt that the panel is strongly inclined to recommend significant changes, rather than just ruminating about how well the system is working.

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