WASHINGTON — More transparency is needed in the college accreditation system in order to boost student success and higher education affordability, Sen. Tom Harkin said to a group of accreditors Wednesday morning as part of his effort to improve affordability in his last year of office.
The Iowa Democrat, chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, told the Council for Higher Education Accreditation to do more in its role “on the front line in overseeing quality in our system of higher education.”
Colleges, universities and other higher educational programs in the U.S. are reviewed by accreditors in order to provide quality assurance to students, the government and the public. Accredited institutions are eligible for federal funding and grants. Accreditation organizations themselves are also recognized by both the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the Education Department to ensure legitimacy.
During his keynote address, Harkin said transparency problems in a confusing accreditation system lead students to make uninformed decisions about colleges and programs.
“The public at large I think is unclear about the roles the regional, national and programmatic accreditations play and what’s the difference between them,” he said. “We all know those differences matter, and they have real consequences for students.”
For example, Harkin said, a student enrolled in a program at an accredited institution still may not be able to sit for a licensing exam in his or her subject if the program itself is not also accredited. The student would then have lost time and money on the program.
This problem occurs especially in the for-profit college sector, said Rachel Fishman, an education policy analyst at the New America Foundation, in a phone interview.
“Regional accreditation is the gold standard which allows credits to be more easily transferred among institutions,” Fishman said. “Students just don’t know that … They realize in a way they’ve been duped. Maybe they would not have chosen that original school if they knew their credits wouldn’t have been transferred.”
Part of the problem, Fishman said, is the “binary” nature of the accreditation system—an institution either has accreditation or doesn’t, and accredited institutions rarely lose their recognition because accreditation is a peer-review system.
Harkin urged the accreditors to ensure that an institution’s educational quality “take primacy over other purposes.”
“Given how high the stakes are for students and taxpayers, more must be done to monitor institutions and when necessary to remove some bad actors from the system,” he said.
Harkin’s scrutiny of accreditation ties into his committee’s plans to reauthorize the Higher Education Act this year. The HEA, first passed in 1965, provides federal funding for higher education, including loans and grants such as the popular Pell Grant and Stafford Loan programs for low-income students. It was last reauthorized in 2008 and expired at the end of 2013.
The senator said in the past, Congress has made strides in expanding college access and must now focus on improving affordability and ensuring students succeed. Another challenge it faces is making sure federal assistance reaches an “increasingly diverse and nontraditional student body.”
He added that because states have scaled back their higher education funding in the past few decades, much of the burden has shifted to the federal government to boost Pell Grants and provide loans.
Harkin, who is retiring at the end of his term this year, said the reauthorization is “one of the things I want to get under my belt before I leave.”
He hopes his committee will approve a bill by June, but is unsure how likely it would be for the bill to make it to the floor of Congress.