The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Education Dept. forges ahead with plans to weaken college accreditation system

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

The accreditation system designed to compel colleges and universities to live up to high standards would be weakened under regulations advanced Wednesday by a U.S. Education Department committee.

The panel, consisting largely of accrediting agencies and schools, agreed to rules that could extend federal student aid dollars to a wider variety of higher-education institutions.

Wednesday’s action provoked sharply differing responses, with Education Department officials and the accrediting industry hailing it as an important advance for students, while some advocates panned it as an invitation for abuse.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos praised the agreement as a critical step toward spurring innovation in a sector that needs to be more responsive to a changing workforce.

“These changes will allow students to work at their own pace to earn a college degree, obtain credit for proving what they already know and earn a credential aligned with employers’ job requirements,” DeVos said in a statement Wednesday.

The secretary has criticized what counts as a college course worthy of federal loans and grants. She has also challenged the accreditation system that stands between schools and billions of dollars in financial aid, questioning whether the Education Department’s rules work to the detriment of students.

DeVos moves to boost college online learning while reducing regulatory oversight

But some higher education experts expressed concern that the Trump administration proposals could set the stage for more waste, fraud and abuse.

“While some of the Department’s initial proposals were scaled back through negotiation, many agreed upon today will still serve a similar purpose: allow federal dollars to flow to unproven and untested programs under the guise of innovation,” said Michael Itzkowitz, a senior fellow at the center-left think tank Third Way.

Itzkowitz, who served in the Education Department under President Barack Obama, said the draft regulations remove “guardrails that help protect students and the taxpayers who subsidize their educational pursuits.” Still, he said he suspects many of the negotiators on the committee believed it was better to come to an agreement rather than let the department do whatever it wants behind closed doors.

Wednesday’s consensus arrives after months of negotiations on proposals the Education Department issued in January. Consensus means the department will have to include most of the language agreed upon by the committee, whose draft regulations will be published for public comment. Those comments could lead to revisions of the rules.

Under Wednesday’s agreement, accreditors would no longer be required to take action against colleges that fail to live up to accrediting standards, nor would those agencies have to inform students there is a problem.

The Education Department would also take a more hands-off approach to regulating accreditors. In some instances, accreditors at risk of having their powers stripped would no longer have their case reviewed by multiple arms of the department. Advocacy groups say that could result in the education secretary making a unilateral decision in favor of the accrediting agency, much like what DeVos did in the case of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, known by the acronym ACICS.

DeVos reinstated the controversial accrediting agency, which the Obama administration kicked out of the federal aid program because of lax oversight of for-profit colleges, despite an education staff report citing lingering problems with the council.

“Given the Department’s stamp of approval of ACICS, there is virtually no expectation that an accreditor that falls down on the job would be held accountable,” said Antoinette Flores, a higher education policy analyst at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress. “This is what is to be expected when the higher education lobby is allowed to write its own rules.”

The Education Department backed off some of its earlier proposals. Online programs must still seek approval from all the states where they enroll students, and all programs must disclose information about whether they meet state licensing requirements. The panel also kept intact rules that defined a credit as one hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out-of-class student work each week.

The Trump administration initially proposed eliminating a cap on schools outsourcing academic programs to providers that are not accredited, which would have paved the way for institutions to have outside parties run academic programs. But the committee kept the cap.

“We believe the final provisions lay the foundation for improvements that will benefit students, protect taxpayers and encourage additional flexibility for institutions,” Barbara Gellman-Danley, chair of the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions and a member of the committee, said in a statement.

Advocacy groups said they worry some of the final provisions could prop up failing schools and prolong harm done to students and taxpayers. One provision would allow for-profit colleges to acquire campuses in financial distress without accepting more than a year’s worth of liability.