HIGHER EDUCATION: The Accreditation Debate

As a career firefighter, John started his academic journey by going to his local community college to earn an associate of science degree in fire science. Thereafter, a colleague from his recommended that he looks into a National Fire Academy...

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Actually, more for-profits are becoming regionally accredited. The latest data show that most for-profit institutions have regional accreditation. So while it’s true that more and more nonprofit and public institutions have regional accreditation, almost all the big for-profits are regionally accredited, as well as many smaller ones. There are three reasons why more for-profits don’t get regionally accredited. The first is eligibility – a good number of for-profits are non-degree-granting or are single-subject schools, which some regional accreditation agencies will not accredit. The second reason is practical in nature and relates to the fact that accreditation translates to easy access to financial aid. For-profit schools can get access to financial aid through national accreditation, so there is no greater incentive to go for regional accreditation. The final reason is that many for-profits schools choose not to go through the rigorous evaluation process required by the regional accreditation agencies, which demand specific requirements that don’t always match the for-profits’ mission or business model.

The discussion about which form of accreditation is most beneficial – national vs. regional – continues to grow as the debate in Washington intensifies about the for-profit colleges and universities in the context of financial-aid malpractice and the new law of “Gainful Employment.” This debate would intensify further as we undertake the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). The current reauthorization may mark a period of great divide between accreditation agencies and the federal government on the issue of accountability. No party involved will be well-served by this circumstance. All would benefit from the accreditation community and the federal government coming to terms with this issue, which is vital to sustaining the quality of higher education and ensuring access to colleges and universities.


Accreditation & accountability

Currently, members of Congress and officials in the U.S. Department of Education are seeking significant changes to how accreditation addresses accountability based on four scenarios. The first scenario offered by many in higher education quarters is to do nothing, arguing that “this, too, shall pass.” The second scenario seeks to affirm the value and effectiveness of current accreditation practice as adequate evidence of accountability. The third scenario offered by a member of Congress seeks to separate accreditation from the HEA under the pretext that the differences between what accreditation does and what government wants cannot be reconciled. The fourth scenario seeks to bridge the divide between what government wants and what accreditation does by urging accrediting organizations and higher education institutions to take steps to address the current accountability expectations in the next HEA reauthorization, but only in the context of the federal government, acknowledging that these organizations and institutions (not government) have primary responsibility for judgments about academic quality, including institution and program performance and student learning outcomes.

Wherever this debate leads, the public ought to rely on facts rather than opinion or ideology to make decisions about which institution and which form of accreditation will best suit their long-term professional and personal goals. The facts reported from the field are as follows:

• Regionally accredited degrees from almost anywhere would be acceptable to most employers as long as the major can be demonstrated to be of value to that employer

• Units earned at a regionally accredited institution are guaranteed to transfer toward a similar or higher degree to another institution of higher education

• In most instances, a nationally accredited degree is acceptable to employers, unless there is a specification for a “regionally” accredited degree

• In most cases, regionally accredited institutions do not accept units completed at a nationally accredited institution; the reverse is not necessarily true

So is a regionally accredited degree better than a nationally accredited one? It depends on who you ask.

A regionally accredited degree makes more sense for someone who:

• Is relatively young (early 20s to mid-30s)

• Is likely to change jobs a few times during their career

• May even change careers once or twice

• May want to teach one day

• Would like to work their way into a more prestigious school

• Would like to simply put the whole debate behind them and not have to worry about it in the future

• Can get a regionally accredited degree for the same expense and effort as a nationally accredited one

• Works in a state that has educational standards to where only regionally accredited degrees are recognized by that state for licensure or employment

A nationally accredited degree makes more sense for someone who:

• Likes the teaching method of a particular nationally accredited school and otherwise would not attend college