Based on an idea of self-regulation, accreditation was originally developed to assure and improve excellence in higher education programs. When the federal government began investing in higher education, accreditation took on another role by ensuring that the gate to federal funds is open only to high quality academic institutions.
Today the federal government, states, and accrediting agencies -- known collectively as "the triad" -- work together to determine which institutions are eligible to participate in federal student aid programs. Accrediting agencies are given a great amount of authority in the process, establishing standards and conducting peer review evaluations of postsecondary institutions.
By design, assessing program quality is meant to be a non-governmental process. Entrusting independent bodies - not the Department of Education or Congress - with this responsibility has preserved institutional autonomy and academic freedom within our higher education system. This framework has helped to maintain a crucial balance between flexibility for institutions and accountability for students and taxpayers.
However, as our higher education system adapts to embrace 21st century technologies and changing student demographics, we must now explore whether the accreditation system is also due for reforms.
Advances in technology have introduced new programs, platforms, and environments for learning into the higher education community. Massive open online courses have modernized instructional delivery by providing a wide variety of postsecondary courses and degree opportunities to students nationwide. New competency-based programs award credentials based on experience and knowledge, instead of how much time students have spent in a classroom.
These innovative methods of learning stem from the social and demographic changes that have fundamentally changed what it means to be a "traditional student." Institutions are actively seeking opportunities to better serve a growing population of students who don't fit the usual "first time, full time" mold, including students who are veterans, parents who are returning to school, and students who work full-time while earning a degree.
If standards to measure quality continue to be based on so-called "traditional" programs and students of the past, those institutions working diligently to innovate and serve the needs of today's students -- while also seeking opportunities to offer more cost-effective degree programs -- could be at an accreditation disadvantage.
Some higher education leaders have proposed changes to the accreditation metrics to ensure institutions that are experimenting with new education models such as competency-based programs or online learning initiatives aren't unfairly penalized. The Obama administration jumped into this debate earlier this year, suggesting changes to the criteria accrediting agencies use to evaluate colleges and universities and setting benchmarks for affordability and student outcomes in the 2013 State of the Union blueprint.
Other experts have proposed larger reforms, including taking accreditors out of the process of determining an institution's eligibility for federal financial aid, believing that accrediting agencies -- which are largely made up of the institutions they accredit -- have an inherent conflict of interest in determining the quality standards institutions must meet.
In the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, Republicans authored provisions to make the accreditation process and its results public to help students and families better evaluate their postsecondary education choices. With the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, we have another chance to explore additional reforms that will strengthen the accreditation system while also supporting institutional innovation. I look forward to beginning that conversation in today's hearing.