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Witnesses Highlight Need to Improve Accountability in Higher Education

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce, chaired by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), held a hearing to examine the accreditation system and identify ways to improve accountability in higher education. This hearing is the latest step in the committee’s continued effort to help strengthen higher education for today’s and future generations of students.

The committee has identified several principles to guide higher education reform, including providing accountability and transparency to students, families, and taxpayers. A strong accreditation system is one way to deliver that accountability, which students, families, and taxpayers rely on to ensure institutions are offering a high-quality education.

"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,” Chairwoman Foxx said. “In recent years, accreditors have been forced to focus on compliance rather than promoting academic integrity, undermining the process and its purpose.”

Those concerns were echoed by witnesses. Dr. George Pruitt, president of Thomas Edison State University, said, “Over the last several years, the Department of Education continually promulgated a series of increasingly intrusive, overreaching regulatory and reporting requirements and made the regional accreditors enforcers of these rules as a condition of federal recognition."

“When you hear college officials complain about the minutia and nitpicking by accreditors, it is usually caused by the compliance protocols forced on the accreditors, not the quality assurance practices developed by the accreditors,” Dr. Pruitt continued.

Chairwoman Foxx noted, “It’s time for a better approach.” She added:

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.

Witnesses agreed that the accreditation process should focus more on student outcomes and less on compliance.

Dr. Michale  McComis, executive director of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, said accreditation “should enforce an accountability-based model that combines rigorous input standards with performance outcomes such as student learning, student assessment, and student achievement."

He added, “The higher education community — including accrediting agencies — must be allowed to adapt and innovate in order to accommodate the diversity of students, student preferences, and learning styles.”

Others highlighted the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) as an opportunity to foster an accreditation system that promotes transparency and innovation.

Dr. Mary Ellen Petrisko, president of the accrediting body WASC Senior College and University Commission, told members, “I believe it is critical that the HEA reauthorization support the innovation necessary to serve current and especially future students.” She continued:

Whatever steps are taken to provide greater transparency should ensure that students can access accurate and relevant information on our institutions … Better information can help students make better choices and promote enhanced accountability across higher education.

Chairwoman Foxx agreed, adding, “If we are going to roll back rigid regulations, it’s up to accrediting agencies to take the flexibility we are working to provide and do something meaningful with it.”

Looking to the work that lies ahead to strengthen higher education, Chairwoman Foxx concluded: “By working together — Congress and accreditors — we can improve the accreditation system, restoring balance between flexibility for institutions and accountability for students and taxpayers.”

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