This commentary was originally featured in Forbes on November 7, 2017.
Roughly 3,000 American colleges and universities periodically undergo what is called the accreditation process, which is meant to certify their academic quality as determined by one of seven regional accreditors operating in six geographic regions. Since 1952, accreditation by a federally recognized accreditor has been required for a school to qualify to receive student aid funds. Last year, slightly under $240 billion in federal aid was sent to undergraduate and graduate students through grants, Federal Work Study, federal loans, and federal tax credit and tax deductions.
That’s a lot of money. Without it, many schools would likely be forced to close.
But does the accreditation process serve students, parents, employers, and taxpayers?
There are reasons for doubt, as George Leef and Roxana Burris detailed in their ACTA study, “Can College Accreditation Live Up To Its Promise?” They find “little evidence that accreditation is a reliable quality indicator.” While “the approach taken by most accrediting bodies is to check to see that colleges and universities have certain inputs and procedures,” they “give no assurances about the quality of individual courses or programs.”
In addition to accreditation’s “significant costs” to universities (costs borne ultimately by students, parents, and taxpayers), “the quality of undergraduate education in America has declined considerably, despite the fact that nearly all colleges and universities are accredited.” Nor has accreditation done anything to address three decades of tuition hyperinflation and its consequence—skyrocketing student-loan debt.
Published 15 years ago, Leef and Burris’s conclusions remain compelling. Among their recommendations for reform, they propose that “the connection between eligibility for government student aid and accreditation should be severed.” They are mindful of the political difficulties confronting their reasonable suggestion. While those obstacles remain in place, perhaps a salutary, politically feasible first step would be to place accrediting power with each state for its institutions of higher education. That is to say, let’s make state accreditation sufficient to certify a school’s fitness to receive federal student aid funds.
The one-word description of my proposal is “federalism”—federalism, that is, as articulated in the original U.S. Constitution, not as distorted by Court interpretation over the past century. Under the Constitution, all matters related to education were solely the province of the individual states. A move to restore the Constitution’s purposes was proposed two years ago by U.S. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), with his “Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act of 2015” (S.649). “Our current higher education system is controlled by the iron triangle of regional accreditation organizations, the schools and federal bureaucrats,” said Lee. “The result is the exploding cost of higher education, which either prevents students from getting the educational experience they need or forces them to take on unnecessarily large amounts of debt.”
Lee’s legislation failed to pass. But, in our age of governing via administrative regulations and executive orders, legislation may not be the only road to reform. U.S. Education Secretary DeVos may well be able to return accreditation to the states and, in the process, return us to the Founders’ vision.
Why would moving higher-education accreditation from D.C. to the states be better for students, parents, and taxpayers? First, it would help to unclutter the policy and budget confusion that arises from the sheer massiveness of the federal higher education regime. Trying to formulate and then impose single standards for a land as diverse as our fifty-state Union is bound to produce ill-fitting, burdensome regulations, redundancies, and thus wasted tax dollars and effort.
Defenders of a top-down, DC-controlled approach to higher education funding (which has been disingenuously marketed as the “new federalism, rather than what it truly is: the abandonment of constitutional federalism) point to those states that fare badly in education funding and student achievement and declare this sufficient proof of the need for federal control. In so doing, they ignore the benefits that constitutional federalism nurtures and enhances in the field of higher education.
Chief among the benefits conferred by restoring power over higher education accreditation to the states is that it thereby restores power to those office-holders who are held responsible for their state’s educational achievements. Currently, Washington, D.C. blithely pronounces edicts and requirements in higher education—and then leaves both implementation and accountability to state leaders who have little or no role in determining the policy that they must now administer.
What can state leaders do about the tuition-inflating effects of federally subsidized student loans? What can they do about a $1.4 trillion student-loan debt that is the consequence of students borrowing to keep pace with tuition inflation? The answer to both questions is “very little,” for these are federal, not state, policies. But granting states accrediting power to qualify their schools for federal student aid would go no small distance toward ameliorating the unintended consequences of federal control.
Most important, states could begin to provide their students the benefits that would flow from education innovation. Such innovation is most likely to be sparked through eliminating the current barriers to new entrants in the higher education field—entrants who have upgraded traditional higher education’s rickety business model; entrants who focus on education outputs (learning outcomes, future employment viability, and average student-loan debt) rather than the “inputs and procedures” that Leef and Burris rightly underscore as the leading features of the regional accreditors’ regimes.
But what about the point made by defenders of D.C. control over higher education, namely, that some states have poor records on this score? This is the rubber-meets-the-road point in the clash between defenders of the “new federalism” in higher education versus those championing constitutional federalism.
To answer this point, let us take the worst-case scenario rehearsed by proponents of the new federalism: You live in a state that does poorly in higher education relative to other states. What are you to do? To begin, you can get involved in reform of higher education at the state and/or local level. No small task, to be sure, but one far more likely of success than your effort to change policy mandated from Imperial Washington, in relation to which individual citizens are but specks compared to the well-funded lobbies who work in conjunction with other Inside-the-Beltway powerbrokers to run our lives.
But let’s take the worst-case scenario one step further: You fail to get reform in higher education at the state and/or local level—and you have college-ready kids. Where should they go? Here, federalism shows its strength as the enabler of the fifty “laboratories of democracy,” to borrow a phrase from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Allowing states to accredit their own higher education institutions will produce better innovations—in tuition and loan-debt reduction, in creating more marketable degrees, and in increasing access—than any one-size-fits-all approach coming out of D.C.
The bottom line is this: If states are given control over accreditation, and you don’t like what yours has done, you can always send your children to schools in states that do the job better—and that have been allowed to do the job better through being granted power over accreditation.
Such a cross-state “escape” to a better education will be available to us only so long as escape routes exist. The best higher education alternatives are most likely to be discovered if all fifty states once again get a crack at running what the Constitution always intended them to run.