Quality Assurance, Rearranged

The Education Department’s advisory committee on accreditation was given a nearly impossible task: proposing ways to "fix" the country’s complex, multi-part system of ensuring financial integrity and academic quality in higher education.

A "discussion draft" of the report by the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, to be published later this week but obtained by Inside Higher Ed, in many ways concedes the difficulty of its assignment, purposefully avoiding putting forth clearcut, unwavering proposals that might suggest that there are easy answers to the knotty problems in the current system. (The panel’s leaders take great pains to portray this document as a starting point for a broad and open-minded public discussion about a set of options, and say they hope to be more assertive in a later set of recommendations, depending on how that conversation unfolds.)

But despite its often noncommittal language filled with "might"s instead of "should"s — and leaving an endless array of unanswered questions — the document also provides a roadmap by which a very different system of college quality assurance could emerge. It does, for instance, make a strong (if equivocal) case for altering (but not ending) the role of accrediting agencies’ role as the primary determiner of colleges’ eligibility for federal student aid.

In one scenario laid out by the group, for instance, the federal government, in addition to its current focus on financial integrity, would take on the role of monitoring colleges’ compliance with some baseline outcome measures of quality, aiming to ease the pressure on accrediting agencies to serve both as peer reviewers focused on institutional improvement and cops on the beat.


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