Higher Ed Needs More Accountability

Tim Goral's picture

In Casablanca, Capt. Renault pockets his winnings and remarks, as he shuts down Rick's American Cafe, "I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!" After decades of presiding over the disastrous combination of declining quality and runaway costs of American higher education, the leaders of America's college-accrediting agencies are nearly as convincing as Capt. Renault as they loudly protest their injured innocence.

President Obama was right to collar them. Six accrediting agencies have for decades under federal law held the task of determining which colleges within their geographical regions -- nearly 3,000 schools -- are of sufficient quality to make them eligible for federal student aid. What is there to show for this enormously expensive investiture of power? Nearly seven in 10 employers now believe that higher-education quality must be improved for our graduates to remain competitive in the global economy, and two-thirds of college graduates hold debt to the tune of almost $27,000 on average. It's clear that accreditors are failing to do their job.

Obama appears to be out of patience with excuses from these guardians of the status quo. He envisions the possibility of "a new, alternative system of accreditation that would provide pathways for higher-education models and colleges to receive federal student aid based on performance and results."

In fact, such an alternative is already before Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. A bipartisan group within the federal advisory council on accreditation recently proposed a system that would base eligibility for federal student aid on clear measures of quality and effectiveness, such as graduation rates, student learning gains, job placement, financial stability and student loan default rates. There would be no intrusion on the autonomy of America's vibrant diversity of higher-education institutions, no micromanagement of their missions. Federal dollars would flow only to institutions that document successful outcomes, as President Obama said.

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