Since the first passage of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965 accreditation, the organizations responsible for accreditation play a critical role in the decisions regarding the disbursement of federal funds by allowing accredited institutions and students who attend these institutions to have easier access to federal funds. As a result, the federal government wants to play a more pivotal role in accreditation practices to the extent that “the traditional collegial practices of accreditation are increasingly eclipsed by regulatory practices imposed by government, both in the scope and the attention to the details of accreditation practice” (Eaton, 2012, p. 10).
The U.S. Department of Education (2016) notes “the President’s FY 2017 Budget provides $69.4 billion in discretionary funding and $139.7 billion in new mandatory funding for the U.S. Department of Education” (p. 2) for a total of $209.1 billion on education spending earmarked for 2017. With this amount of money being spent on education, the Government is pushing reforms that include simplifying and streamlining the federal student aid application and repayment process, and evidence based programs for identifying and supporting student success at all levels (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). These reforms will have a large impact on accreditation, the accreditation processes and the education ‘commodity’.
Education is now a commodity and a very special commodity because it is one that is crucial for national economic advancement, so important that the Government has budgeted over $209 billion for it in 2017. Consequently, the Government and the public have a right to ask and are asking questions about the quality of this commodity and would like to access information about this commodity and its quality. Eaton (2012) notes “It is not only the government but also the press and the general public who want more accountability from accreditation in the form of greater evidence of student achievement and institutional performance as well as increased transparency” (p. 8). Hence, the government’s attempt to put in place regulations regarding student learning and the publication of such information.
The U.S. Congress is still in the process of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA) and there are several bills before the House and Senate regarding reauthorization. These include acts on financial aid simplification and transparency, and strengthening transparency in higher education. The purpose of the former act is to “simplify the Federal student aid programs in order to provide (1) access to postsecondary education for students and families; and (2) information that will allow students and families to make better consumer choices” (Congress.gov, 2015); while the latter makes provisions for the establishment of a ‘College Dashboard website’ that will, among other things, make information available about accredited colleges nationwide, such as the degree completion rate and “the percentage of undergraduate students who obtained a certificate or degree from the institution who borrowed Federal student loans and the average Federal student loan debt incurred by an undergraduate student” (Congress.gov, 2015).
The Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act is a small step in the Government’s march towards “more accountability through accreditation in the form of greater evidence of student achievement” (Eaton, 2012, p. 8) because it makes information available about ‘completion data’ for students at any given college on the College Dashboard website to be published by the Secretary of Education. This act also facilitates institutional comparison on the College Dashboard website based on completion and other data, data gathered by the accreditation process that each institution listed goes through.
Higher education accreditation in America is an old and auspicious collegiate activity pronouncing on the quality of a higher education institution. This pronouncement gave the students, faculty and staff of the institution pride, the general public confidence in the institution and more importantly allowed the institution to conduct an introspection of its activities and improve in areas that it is deficient. Over the years, the government came to depend on the accreditation process and used it as a benchmark for the disbursement of federal funds to that institution for students and for the institution. However, with over tens of billions of dollars being disbursed to institutions based on accreditation and with the Spellings Commission’s report in 2006 citing shortcomings and inconsistencies in the accreditation process, the federal government began seeking greater oversight of the accreditation process much to the chagrin of those involved in the process. The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) is still not complete, but the bills relating to the reauthorization of the HEA are proposing changes that will affect the accreditation process. The debate about the effectiveness of these changes on the integrity and openness of the much revered and once collegiate accreditation process of accreditation will rage on as long as the government is as deeply involved in it as it is.
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