WASHINGTON – The skyrocketing cost of higher education is front and center with most parents and prospective college students, but a more arcane issue, the integrity of the accreditation process, is also presenting challenges for policymakers.

Accreditation is the critical stamp of approval that essentially allows any American higher education institution to operate credibly. Colleges, universities and other higher education programs must be deemed legitimate by outside accrediting agencies in order to receive federal financial aid money and participate in federal student loan programs.

But many experts and lawmakers say it’s a broken system that allows federal aid to flow to programs that don’t really help students succeed and restricts progress and innovation in newer educational programs. In the past year, both the House and Senate have held hearings discussing accreditation, with many members of Congress suggesting the system must be changed to assure educational institutions deliver a return on taxpayer investments.

Senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is an active proponent of accreditation reform. Harkin hopes to tackle the issue this year during debate of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act – the law defining the federal government’s role in assisting and overseeing the nation’s colleges and universities.  One of the challenges is improving the accreditation process to “effectively monitor and ensure transparency for the more than 7,000 institutions of higher education around the country,” a Harkin aide said.

Meanwhile, some vocal opponents to the accreditation system, such as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni want higher education to be evaluated differently, by letting colleges report their own information.

“There’s a lot of potential in alternative forms of certifying colleges for federal financial aid that are outside of accreditation but at the moment that is not a widespread view,” said Andrew Gillen, a higher education researcher at the American Institutes for Research.

Gatekeepers to aid

Accreditation hasn’t always been contentious. The system emerged in the United States in the late 1800s as a voluntary peer-review process for colleges and universities to prove their legitimacy. Experts say it was better way back then.

“Accreditation historically worked very well” to detect institutional problems, such as ineptitude or mismanagement, said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

“When you don’t have to do something, people who engage in that something do it in good faith,” Nassirian said.

Nassirian said colleges and universities originally used accreditation purely as quality assurance, a way to tell students they would get their money’s worth and get an education with an authentic institution of higher learning.

Things got complicated when the federal government began handing out financial aid with the passage of the 1952 GI Bill reauthorization and the 1965 Higher Education Act, which provide aid in the form of grants and loans.

Rather than let government officials recognize legitimate academic institutions — a practice that is used in many other parts of the world — the government turned to the already-in-place accreditation system to determine which schools were worthy of receiving federal money.

Accreditors are private membership organizations composed of academics and experts in the fields they accredit. Accreditation agencies themselves are recognized as legitimate by the Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, a non-governmental organization.accreditation

“We really don’t want our politicians to cast votes on what is or is not biology,” Nassirian said. “Consequently what we’ve done is delegated the task in theory to practitioners.”

With the establishment of federal financial aid, accreditors, whose job began as a means of regulation and improvement among institutions, became burdened with an additional role, as the “gatekeepers” to billions of dollars in federal money.

It’s a role that is incompatible with evaluating educational quality, critics say, and the problems that come with it are manifold.

“It’s just not equipped for that,” Nassirian said.

Twofold criticism

College accreditation is under scrutiny from two main perspectives.

“You have the consumer protection group that argues that accreditation is failing because it’s not doing enough to kick out schools doing a terrible job for their students,” said Ben Miller, educational policy analyst at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy think tank.

Because accreditation is a peer-review process, critics say there is a conflict of interest in determining which schools can get federal funding.

“Gatekeeping and self-improvement really don’t mesh,” said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which most recently spoke out against the existing accreditation system during a House hearing in June 2013. “The very people who benefit from the flow of federal funds, administrators and faculty … are the very people who constitute the accrediting teams and decide what federal funds should flow.”

And since colleges are either simply accredited or not, the sign of legitimacy does little to tell students and parents about the quality of different programs within an institution, Neal said, adding that comparing programs between different accredited institutions is also difficult.

“When an institution is accredited, it does not mean the history department is accredited, or the economics department is any good,” Neal said. “You can have divisions that are doing very very poorly. It really tells you very very little.”

The practice of continuing to accredit poorly performing schools has often been discussed in light of the recent boom in for-profit colleges.

In 2012, Harkin released a two-year investigation by his committee of for-profit colleges, finding that students attending for-profit schools made up nearly half of all federal student loan defaults.

“One has to wonder what accreditors are doing. There is no question that there are fake schools and counterfeit degrees out there being financed through federal dollars,” Nassirian said. “When you sign up for education, you’re buying the future experience … You’re relying on the say-so of supposed experts who supposedly have vetted the program.”

A representative from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation was not available for comment. In the past, CHEA president Judith Eaton has denied allegations of a conflict of interest.

“The potential for conflict of interest exists within accreditation, as in many fields,” Eaton wrote in a statement last year. “However, sufficient safeguards to contain conflict of interest have been effective over the years.”

The other camp of accreditation critics is concerned the system does not adequately consider educational innovation, especially in light of new programs such as massive open online courses (MOOCs) that don’t look like a traditional bricks-and-mortar university.

“We’re seeing a very dynamic education marketplace now whether we talk about MOOCs or the provision of individual courses as opposed to institution-based delivery models,” Neal said. “Accreditation is a barrier to innovation because it is focused exclusively on institutions and really cannot accommodate newer and often cheaper and one would think better delivery systems.”

In her statement, Eaton said accreditors have responded in the past to new forms of education, such as community colleges and for-profit colleges, and they have adapted to accredit those institutions.

“Why expect that accreditation will fail to address current innovation?” she said.

Uncertain alternatives

Though accreditation has many opponents, there is little consensus on the best solution or alternative.

Harkin has expressed an interest in greater transparency on the accreditors’ side. In January he spoke to a CHEA conference, calling for accreditors’ to better inform students and parents about the different kinds of accreditation so that students do not mistakenly choose educational programs whose credits may be useless to job certification.

Miller said accreditors could achieve transparency by making their reports public.

“One of the big parts of accreditation is you do this big long self-study, and it’s very expensive, takes a lot of work and basically nobody ever gets to see it,” he said. “Part of what drives the complaints about accreditors is so much of the work they do is never public so you can’t actually gauge if they’re doing a good job or not.”

Other critics would rather have institutions and programs self-report information to the government, submitting audited statements about financial stability and data such as graduation rates, alumni satisfaction, loan repayments and student retention, rather than rely on the stamp of approval from accreditors.

“It could be a range of different bits of information that would allow parents, consumers and policy makers to compare one institution with another which we simply cannot do now in the accreditation system,” Neal said.

Self-reporting would focus on the institution’s outputs – the quality of the education produced or the success of the student in the job market — as opposed to accreditors’ evaluation of inputs, such as the amount of money and resources an institution has. Advocates argue that this allows students to better judge their own chances of success upon enrollment.

Even President Barack Obama has weighed in on accreditation. In February 2013, he proposed that accreditors evaluate an institution’s affordability in addition to its quality.

Accreditors know changes will come when Congress reauthorizes the Higher Education Act. Eaton wrote in a June 2013 newsletter to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation that she expects to see more federal regulation of the accreditation system.

“This will be the reauthorization that determines whether and to what extent traditional accreditation is to be sustained,” Eaton wrote.