What Rubio Got Wrong About College Accreditation

Under the current system, students can get credit for learning outside the classroom. The process just isn’t as efficient or flexible as Rubio would like.

Moderators Ron Brownstein of National Journal and Mariana Atencio of Fusion flank Sen. Marco Rubio at the Next America event Feb 11, 2014, at Miami Dade College.
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
Feb. 17, 2014, 12:05 a.m.

In­de­pend­ent ac­cred­it­ors peri­od­ic­ally re­view col­leges and uni­versit­ies to en­sure their qual­ity. But the pro­cess doesn’t em­phas­ize out­comes like gradu­ation rates and af­ford­ab­il­ity, and it doesn’t pre­vent the emer­gence of bad act­ors like some for-profit col­leges. Ad­vanced edu­ca­tion has be­come an all but es­sen­tial qual­i­fic­a­tion for good-pay­ing jobs, yet many in­sti­tu­tions still struggle to gradu­ate stu­dents at a reas­on­able cost and with good em­ploy­ment pro­spects.

Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida re­cently called ac­cred­it­a­tion a “biased and broken sys­tem,” not­ing that the pro­cess is con­trolled largely by tra­di­tion­al two and four-year col­leges and uni­versit­ies. But the main prob­lem with ac­cred­it­a­tion isn’t that it pre­vents in­nov­a­tion, as Ru­bio ar­gued in a speech out­lining his vis­ion for im­prov­ing ac­cess and af­ford­ab­il­ity in high­er edu­ca­tion. It’s that ac­cred­it­a­tion doesn’t provide ad­equate con­sumer pro­tec­tion.

Here’s how the sys­tem cur­rently works: There are 85 in­de­pend­ent or­gan­iz­a­tions that ac­cred­it col­leges and uni­versit­ies, and each sets its own stand­ards. The ac­cred­it­a­tion pro­cess largely de­pends on self-re­port­ing by in­sti­tu­tions, peer re­view, and eval­u­ations from high­er-edu­ca­tion ex­perts. Only ac­cred­ited in­sti­tu­tions can re­ceive fed­er­al sup­port like fin­an­cial aid.

For ac­cred­it­ors that fo­cus on spe­cif­ic pro­grams, such as law and medi­cine, stand­ards are of­ten tied to pro­fes­sion­al li­cens­ing re­quire­ments. But re­gion­al ac­cred­it­a­tion stand­ards, which must ap­ply to a wide range of in­sti­tu­tions from trade schools to flag­ship uni­versit­ies, are left pur­posely vague. “It’s a pro­fes­sion­al judg­ment call. It’s not driv­en purely quant­it­at­ively,” says Ju­dith Eaton, pres­id­ent of the Coun­cil for High­er Edu­ca­tion Ac­cred­it­a­tion, an as­so­ci­ation of col­leges and ac­cred­it­ors.

To see just how vague, check out the warn­ing the for-profit Uni­versity of Phoenix re­ceived from its ac­cred­it­or last year. The cri­ter­ia the uni­versity must im­prove, ac­cord­ing to a pub­lic dis­clos­ure no­tice from the High­er Learn­ing Com­mis­sion, in­clude: “The in­sti­tu­tion demon­strates a com­mit­ment to edu­ca­tion­al achieve­ment and im­prove­ment through on­go­ing as­sess­ment of stu­dent learn­ing.” The uni­versity’s low re­ten­tion and gradu­ation rates and high stu­dent-loan de­fault rates are a con­cern, but are not cri­ter­ia the ac­cred­it­or is act­ively mon­it­or­ing.

When Ru­bio brought up ac­cred­it­a­tion in his re­marks at a Na­tion­al Journ­al event last week, it was to ar­gue that the sys­tem blocks in­nov­a­tion by fa­vor­ing ex­ist­ing forms of high­er edu­ca­tion. He sug­ges­ted that Con­gress cre­ate an in­de­pend­ent ac­cred­it­or to val­id­ate the qual­ity of non­tra­di­tion­al forms of edu­ca­tion, such as free on­line courses, and al­low them to count to­ward a de­gree. Such ac­cred­it­a­tion al­low stu­dents to re­ceive fed­er­al fin­an­cial aid for nov­el forms of edu­ca­tion that could be lower cost and easi­er to fit in­to a busy sched­ule than a multi-year pro­gram on a phys­ic­al cam­pus. 

“What frus­trates me and many people is, that learn­ing is already out there,” Ru­bio said. “You can already take an eco­nom­ics course from MIT or Har­vard or Stan­ford or on­line. But you can’t get cred­it for it, to­wards a cer­ti­fi­able de­gree, un­less you’re en­rolled in a de­gree pro­gram at a col­lege that will pack­age it for you.”

It’s true that only ac­cred­ited in­sti­tu­tions can of­fer de­grees, un­der the cur­rent sys­tem. But grow­ing num­bers of col­leges and uni­versit­ies do give cred­it for the types of learn­ing Ru­bio de­scribed. For ex­ample Cali­for­nia’s John F. Kennedy Uni­versity is work­ing to al­low stu­dents to re­ceive cred­it for edX courses, which are massive open on­line courses provided by elite in­sti­tu­tions.

The Amer­ic­an Coun­cil on Edu­ca­tion’s Col­lege Cred­it Re­com­mend­a­tion Ser­vice has been trans­lat­ing non­tra­di­tion­al learn­ing in­to col­lege cred­it since the 1970s. ACE has cre­ated cred­it re­com­mend­a­tions for mil­it­ary ser­vice, job train­ing, and some free on­line courses. It is also con­sid­er­ing how cred­it might be awar­ded for Moz­illa Open Badges, which are on­line rep­res­ent­a­tions of skills. 

It’s al­ways up to in­di­vidu­al in­sti­tu­tions to de­cide what they’ll ac­cept for cred­it. In gen­er­al, the more elite an in­sti­tu­tion is, the less likely it is to ac­cept cred­it from non-ac­cred­ited sources.

Ru­bio would like stu­dents to be able to pack­age work ex­per­i­ence, life skills, classroom in­struc­tion, and free on­line course­work in­to something equi­val­ent to a de­gree. But this could hap­pen without an act of Con­gress. There’s noth­ing to pre­vent a new or ex­ist­ing in­de­pend­ent ac­cred­it­or from eval­u­at­ing new types of ad­vanced edu­ca­tion or re­view­ing the kind of de­gree equi­val­ents Ru­bio de­scribed. 

Ru­bio ex­plained that the ex­pan­sion of ac­cred­it­a­tion he sug­ges­ted wouldn’t hap­pen overnight. “I don’t think you want to start right away and say, ‘And here’s a flow of fed­er­al dol­lars that will go to you,’ ” he said, not­ing that it’s im­port­ant to en­sure qual­ity and build con­sumer and em­ploy­er trust in new forms of ad­vanced edu­ca­tion.

“There are risks as well as po­ten­tial re­wards” to open­ing the mar­ket to new pro­viders, says Mi­chael Dannen­berg, dir­ect­or of high­er edu­ca­tion and edu­ca­tion fin­ance policy at the Edu­ca­tion Trust. For one thing, there are ex­ist­ing for-profit and non­profit in­sti­tu­tions that take ad­vant­age of vul­ner­able, un­der­in­formed stu­dents and fam­il­ies, and it’s im­port­ant to make sure that phe­nomen­on doesn’t worsen in an ex­pan­ded sys­tem. It’s pos­sible that the pack­aged de­grees Ru­bio de­scribed could cre­ate a par­al­lel high­er edu­ca­tion sys­tem, with less prestige and in­vest­ment in stu­dents than tra­di­tion­al two and four-year de­grees. 

Law­makers no longer want to sit back and let col­leges and uni­versit­ies per­form their own qual­ity con­trol. Pres­id­ent Obama has pro­posed a col­lege rat­ing sys­tem that would tie fed­er­al money to out­comes like gradu­ation rates and af­ford­ab­il­ity. State le­gis­latures are tweak­ing high­er-edu­ca­tion fund­ing for­mu­las to re­ward cer­tain out­comes. Ru­bio and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have put for­ward a bill that would re­quire in­sti­tu­tions to re­lease more data on the re­turn on in­vest­ment stu­dents can ex­pect from cer­tain de­gree pro­grams.

Eaton says she sup­ports the re­lease of more in­form­a­tion about the per­form­ance of an in­sti­tu­tion, but she wor­ries about a sys­tem that would let le­gis­lat­ors dic­tate what qual­ity means in high­er edu­ca­tion. However, there might be room for le­gis­lat­ors to take a big­ger role in en­sur­ing fed­er­al funds are well spent. “It’s up to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to be eval­u­at­ing use of fed­er­al funds like stu­dent aid,” Eaton said. “That’s not an ac­cred­it­or’s job.”

The event that Ru­bio, oth­er edu­ca­tion lead­ers and stu­dents ap­peared at last week at Miami Dade Col­lege was un­der­writ­ten by the Bill and Melinda Gates; Rock­e­feller; and An­nie E. Ca­sey found­a­tions.

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