Top Official Wants to Ease Accreditors’ Oversight Role


Dan Bauman
The Chronicle of Higher Education

Speaking to an audience of accreditors and university representatives on Wednesday, the federal government’s top higher-education official said clarifying the role of accrediting institutions was a major goal for him.

Ted Mitchell, the under secretary of education, told attendees at a workshop held by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation that accreditors’ acceptance of more responsibility over the years for monitoring colleges had created “complicated expectations for institutions, regulators, politicians, and the public.”

Much of the work accreditors do to ensure that colleges comply with federal regulations is “less appropriate to accreditors than it may be to the state or federal government,” said Mr. Mitchell, who is the No. 2 official in the Department of Education and oversees all programs related to postsecondary education and federal student aid.

“If I could focus on a spot today,” he said, “it would be the compliance work and seeing if we could relieve accreditors of the burden of taking that on for us.”

Mr. Mitchell also expressed support for a tiered-accreditation system, in which historically well-performing institutions would be subject to less-intrusive reviews. Mr. Mitchell said the department also supported regulations for accreditors that were “less prescriptive, less costly, and less granular,” while still upholding a standard of gatekeeping.

A tiered-accreditation system was on a list of recommendations submitted to the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, in 2012 by the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, which advises the secretary on accreditation matters.

Mr. Mitchell also said the department supported accreditation’s role as the gatekeeper between colleges and federal funds. The work of accrediting agencies and bodies, Mr. Mitchell said, ensures that students and taxpayers are aware of an institution’s academic quality.

The Obama administration’s proposed college-rating system was in no way meant to replace the accrediting system, Mr. Mitchell said. Rather, department officials hope the data collected for the proposed ratings would benefit accreditors and colleges.

Mr. Mitchell also announced during the workshop that the department would pause action on the proposed “state authorization” rule regarding online programs for the time being. Given the complexity of issue, Mr. Mitchell said, the department hopes a timeout will allow the government and stakeholders to get the regulations right. Under a draft rule, on which stakeholders and the department failed to reach agreement during negotiations this year, colleges’ online programs would have to obtain approval to operate in each state where they enrolled students. The department had previously announced that it would push the deadline for finalizing the state-authorization rule to July 2015.

Mary Ellen Petrisko, president of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, said she was encouraged by the department’s recognition of the heavy responsibility accreditors were bearing as compliance monitors. Ms. Petrisko said she hoped that in the future the federal and state governments, as well as accrediting bodies, could concretely define their roles and responsibilities in the higher-education system.

William V. Larkin, executive director of the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training, echoed Ms. Petrisko’s sentiments.

“The ability for accreditors to step back from regulatory work and compliance work would be welcomed,” Mr. Larkin said.