College accreditation rule leaves work yet to do
The federal government’s long-awaited final new regulations for accrediting postsecondary institutions are out — and the results are mixed. We see some encouraging steps forward, but also some troubling oversights. In short, there is still plenty of work to do.
The Department of Education announced these new regulations last week, which include rules governing state authorization of distance, or online, education. This long-anticipated decision is the result of a negotiated rulemaking process that began in the summer of 2018. The rule will take effect in July 2020.
Many organizations and groups that work on higher education policy have watched this process closely, as have we. Lumina submitted a comment on the proposed rule, urging that accreditors sharply focus on what matters most to today’s students. This means an emphasis not on administrative box-checking, but instead striving to ensure positive student outcomes, particularly for those who have traditionally been left out or left behind.
While the changes that will stem from these regulations are well-intentioned and aim to facilitate increased innovation in higher education, a likely result is the weakening of institutional oversight from states, accreditors, and the federal government.
Mixed results: some good, some worrisome
The rules show some encouraging steps forward, but other parts are concerning:
- We like that the rules maintain substantive provisions of the requirement that institutions provide information to students about whether a program — be it online or at brick-and-mortar school — is sufficient for licensure in their state.
- But we are troubled by the absence of defined limits on the number of institutions or programs that can be overseen by a new accreditor within its first two years of operation, like the ones we proposed in our comments of a maximum of 10 institutions or 25 programs.
- We also are concerned about the impact on students and taxpayers of extending federal student aid without sufficient quality assurance, and we think new accreditors should first demonstrate their capability to do so well before allowing them to accredit dozens or hundreds of institutions and programs for the purposes of accessing federal dollars.
Most of all, we’re concerned that the new rules allow colleges to get quicker approvals from agencies for changes to their academic programs, and with it, a faster path to federal financial aid dollars. This means students have fewer protections from low-quality institutions and programs.
And, to make matters worse, institutions or programs will be allowed to be out of compliance with accreditor requirements for up to the better part of a decade — enough time for a student to complete a bachelor’s degree without seeing any improvements or serious action from the institution’s accrediting agency.
What we should do now
What these new rules have not changed is the interconnected nature of our quality assurance system; in fact, that design is more crucial than ever. It is urgent for all of us — accrediting organizations, state agencies, the federal government, communities and advocates — to partner as we continue to upgrade and modernize approaches to assuring and improving quality and protecting students’ interests.
That’s why Lumina is developing resources to assist the broader community in defining and advancing an equity-minded quality agenda, while supporting accrediting organizations and state agencies as they work to advance new policies and practices to meet students’ changing needs.
And, yes, we’ll continue to push for regulations that — if done correctly — are a vital part of our higher education system’s ability to help all Americans get the education they seek and deserve.