Going Bold on Accreditation Reform

This past December, PayPal co-founded Peter Thiel put forward what he considered to be the chart of the year (pictured above: the ascending line is student-loan debt). Thiel’s selection for chart of the year illustrated why it is critically important that higher education move in the direction of credentialing courses and acquired skills, not institutions.

In order to get there, Senator Mike Lee (R – UT) has introduced new legislation to reform the outdated and bureaucratic system of college accreditation.

The Higher Education Reform and Opportunity (HERO) Act would allow states the opportunity to establish their own accreditation systems, in lieu of the existing de facto system of accreditation overseen in large part by the U.S. Department of Education. The proposal empowers states to develop their own accreditation systems to accredit colleges, individual courses within colleges, apprenticeship programs, and curricula. And any state-accredited educational institution, program, or course would then be eligible for federal funding such as student loans.

The current accreditation system narrows the number of available options for students by requiring students to attend an accredited institution in order to be eligible for a federal student loan. The existing accreditation system also prevents individual courses from being accredited. As Sen. Lee explained in a speech at The Heritage Foundation:

“Today, only degree-issuing academic institutions are even allowed to be accredited. Under the new, optional state systems that my bill would authorize, accreditation could also be available to specialized programs, individual courses, apprenticeships, professional credentialing, and even competency-based tests. States could accredit online courses, or hybrid models with elements on- and off-campus.”

Lee went on to explain: “Imagine having access to credit and student aid and for:

  • a program in computer science accredited by Apple, or in music, accredited by the New York Philharmonic;
  • college-level history classes on-site at Mount Vernon or Gettysburg;
  • medical-technician training developed by the Mayo Clinic;
  • taking massive, open, online courses offered by the best teachers in the world, from your living room or the public library.”

Credentialing courses and acquired skills, not institutions, will be a far better reflection of the competencies valued by employers, will help bring down college costs, create a more flexible higher-ed experience for students, and bring down the barriers to entry for innovative start-ups. 

As Stuart Butler and I have written in the past, the “one-size-fits-all” notion of the college experience pigeonholes the typical student as someone who will require four years of undergraduate work to complete training in a given field, with no regard for what field of study they’ve chosen. The existing accreditation regime also disregards the flexibility and access to content that online learning has produced over the past several decades.

Taking the step of decoupling federal financing from accreditation would infuse previously unseen levels of competition and customization in higher education, making it more accessible for a greater number of students, and ultimately, lower costs. It’s a reform that is long overdue.


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