WASHINGTON, D.C. | April 27, 2017
Earlier this year, the committee met to examine some of the challenges facing America’s higher education system. Costs are rising at private and public institutions. Far too many individuals are failing to complete their education in a timely manner. Misguided rules are stifling innovation on campuses and creating new burdens on institutions across the country.
At that same hearing we discussed opportunities to help address these challenges — opportunities like empowering students to make informed decisions; simplifying student aid; and promoting innovation, access, and completion.
Today, we continue our work to strengthen higher education by taking a closer look at another one of the key principles guiding our efforts — providing strong accountability for students and taxpayers.
In higher education, one way we ensure accountability is the accreditation process. Accrediting agencies are voluntary private organizations made up of members from accredited colleges and universities. These agencies work with their member institutions to develop standards and criteria to determine what constitutes a high-quality higher education institution. Then, through a non-governmental system of peer review, the agencies decide if an institution meets those standards.
By giving their stamp of approval, accreditation agencies provide students and parents with an assurance that an institution meets certain standards when it comes to delivering a high-quality education. Families rely on accreditors to hold schools accountable for the education they provide and to ensure those schools are producing results for their students.
Congress also relies on accreditors. Accreditation helps determine which schools are permitted to participate in federal student aid programs. These important programs allow students at eligible schools to receive federal funds, and we need to know those hard-earned taxpayer dollars are only going to institutions that are serving students well.
The accreditation process is critical to providing accountability in the higher education system. However, like many aspects of higher education, accreditation is in need of improvement.
It has never been and should never be the federal government’s role to judge the quality of a school’s education programs. Entrusting independent accrediting agencies with that responsibility protects academic freedom and student choice. However, in recent years, accreditors have been forced to focus on compliance rather than promoting academic integrity, undermining the process and its purpose. It’s time for a better approach.
We need to refocus federal accreditation requirements on academic quality and student learning. We need to ensure federal rules are clear and easy to follow. We need to improve — or do away with — regulations that discourage or prevent innovation in higher education. And we need to make sure the administration — whether Democrat or Republican — does not have the power to recklessly second-guess the tough decisions accreditation agencies make.
These are all things Congress can do to improve the accreditation process, but if we are going to see real change, accreditors have a job to do as well.
It’s not enough to refocus federal rules. Accreditors must also embrace a commitment to high-quality and improved outcomes. Students need an honest and accurate assessment when it comes to the quality of education a school provides. An accreditation agency’s stamp of approval means something to those students, or at least it should mean something.
Accreditors also need to be open to innovation and the opportunities it can create in higher education. If we are going to roll back rigid federal requirements, it’s up to accrediting agencies to take the flexibility we are working to provide and do something meaningful with it.
By working together — Congress and accreditors — we can improve the accreditation system, ensuring a balance between flexibility for institutions and accountability for students and taxpayers.
We are here today to gain a better understanding of the challenges facing the accreditation system, as well as how we can tackle those challenges. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses and advancing solutions that will provide greater accountability in higher education and ensure the accreditation process serves the best interests of students, families, and taxpayers.
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