Hacking Through Policy Thickets – Higher Education, Accreditation and Financial Aid

What’s the best way to support higher education? It’s a very tricky question to answer and in many ways, it’s almost as hard to figure out who to ask. The United States is without a national system for higher education. The government most certainly sets policy, but it does so without the clear agency one agency. The Department of Education matters, but it is not the only player in the game. Further, the government’s tools are often employed in different arenas: financial aid, taxation, direct support, indirect support and a host of other means. In other words, we have something akin to a system as there is a great deal of money supporting higher education, but no clear goals or objectives.

For the past few years  the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) has been providing soliciting feedback and providing guidance to the Department of Education on a host of issues. NACIQI has 18 members who are elected for six-year terms, with the Senate, the House, and the Department of Education each responsible for a third. Members are often university presidents and seasoned, well-connected academicians with a proven track record of personal and professional success. It’s a very important group that is little known to the larger public, or even to the higher education community.

In response to ongoing concerns about the strengths of American higher education and its increasing costs, NACIQI was recently tasked by the Secretary of Education to make some recommendations about financial aid and accreditation. It took this complicated question and broke the discussion down according to several broad approaches which were framed in a public document as questions or options to consider.  The first of these questions looked at the relationship between accreditation and access eligibility to Title IV funds, or federal financial aid.  One approach is to link eligibility for funds to accreditation. Another option is to separate accreditation from the federal financial aid process. The final, or third option, is to consider a different sort of linkage or something in between the other two.

It is a brilliant way of taking a complicated policy question and reducing it to a series of seemingly reasonable actions. The second part of the document is equally interesting, framing a different series of questions if federal financial aid is to remain linked with accreditation (the first choice above). NACIQI notes that poor understanding is woven through the respective responsibilities of the key actors: federal government, state government, and accrediting agency. Option 1 calls for explicit roles for each; option 2 seeks greater communication; option 3 gives financial oversight to the federal government. The possible roles of state governments are considered, as are the possibilities for shared or distributed responsibilities. And lastly, many different scenarios of accreditation-related questions are posed, including mission or sector accreditation, allowing institutions to choose their accrediting agency, giving accrediting agencies new and different powers, or changing the rules of accreditation. The final section lays out different scenarios for better, or different, types of data collection and reporting.

Public comment, which is posted online and comes from higher education leaders, mirrors many of the underlying precepts shaping the process and the endeavor. The assumptions are in many ways affirmations of the status quo, including a continuing role for separate agencies doing accreditation, organizations apart from the government, which is not believed to have the ability or role to evaluate academic quality; the value of federal financial aid; and an ongoing reliance in incremental reform.

Whether the federal government increases or decreases its regulation, or whether there are six, sixteen or sixty accrediting agencies, is a means to address fundamental questions about access to and quality of higher education. Where are those debates and discussions?

NACIQI’s document and corresponding plan is deeply grounded in charting a course to move from point A to point F, outlining the many different paths that might be taken. It is unconcerned as to whether point F is the appropriate destination. Or whether one should fly, drive or walk to F. It takes as given that much must remain the same and it asks those that are closest to the process to evaluate its effectiveness. That is fine, provided that there is something akin to consensus on values or goals. And that, sadly, is the debate and question that needs to occupy our collective attention.

President Obama made a call for the United States to have the highest college graduation rate in the world. It is difficult to see a connection between that ambitious goal and the work of the Department of Education, NACIQI and the regional accrediting agencies.

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