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Education & Labor Committee Republicans

Contact: Press Office (202) 226-9440
Guthrie Statement: Hearing on the Department of Education Inspector General’s Review of Standards for Program Length in Higher Education

Thank you Mr. Chairman, and good morning. The topic of today’s hearing, broadly speaking, is accreditation. It is a system of peer review and program approval that has a long history in American higher education. 

Accreditation is widely viewed as a seal of approval – a sign of program quality. In our higher education system, accrediting agencies are entrusted with a great deal of authority, determining which institutions are eligible to participate in the multi-billion dollar federal student aid programs. 

It is not Congress or the U.S. Department of Education that sets the standards or visits the colleges to measure and verify their program quality. Instead, independent accrediting agencies bear this vital responsibility. 

This is not a fluke. Our nation has always tried to maintain an appropriate balance between accountability to students and taxpayers and the independence of our higher education system. 

One of the benefits of this framework is that it allows greater flexibility for maintaining program quality while fostering constant innovation. For instance, if accreditation were defined by Congress and measured in terms of – for example – the number of books in a library, an institution that gives its students access to electronic course materials could be unfairly excluded from the financial aid programs. 

Understanding the basic purpose and process of accreditation is necessary as we delve into the specific topic of our hearing. Today, we’ll look at a report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Inspector General regarding one specific accrediting agency and the process it used to grant accreditation to a particular institution of higher education. This is one of a series of reviews done by the IG examining how accrediting bodies are operating within the parameters of the law. 

I will leave it to the Inspector General to spell out the details of her report. Let me simply say I appreciate the work that has been done to ensure the intent of Congress – that accrediting bodies use the necessary tools to ensure program quality – is being met. 

As we examine the IG’s findings and the broader issues of how accrediting bodies measure program quality, let me close by urging a note of caution. 

American students and taxpayers must have confidence in our accreditation system – on that, we all agree. We need transparency and accountability to ensure these independent bodies are fulfilling their mission. However, we must be careful not to stray from the fundamental principle that government does not, indeed it cannot, dictate what constitutes a quality institution of higher education. 

This is a point worth emphasizing, particularly in light of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released by the U.S. Department of Education just this week. Efforts to create a federal definition for a “credit hour” or to establish strict federal parameters for program length have the potential to place us on a slippery slope – one that will limit creativity and innovation in the delivery of postsecondary education. 

Americans take pride in our colleges and universities – their independence, their quality, and their potential for innovation. These virtues are rooted in our unique system of peer-reviewed accountability. 

I welcome efforts to shine a light on the accreditation system, and continued efforts to ensure accreditors are using the right tools and measurements to hold institutions to high standards. I believe we can maintain accountability without relinquishing the flexibility and independence of academia. Thank you.

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