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The Trump administration aims to relax college-accreditation requirements as House Democrats forge ahead on tougher rules

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said changes in accreditation rules “are necessary to bring higher education into the current century.” (Alex Edelman/Bloomberg News)

President Trump’s administration is loosening federal oversight of the accreditation system designed to compel colleges and universities to live up to high standards, just as House Democrats have advanced legislation that imposes more stringent rules.

On Thursday, the Education Department finalized regulations that could extend federal student aid dollars to a wider variety of higher-education institutions, with limited accountability. The rules give accreditors more flexibility to approve new programs and schools more time to come into compliance if they’re in violation of standards, while dialing back the department’s supervision of the gatekeepers between colleges and billions of dollars in financial aid. The rules will go into effect in July.

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

“These reforms are necessary to bring higher education into the current century, to be more responsive to the needs of students, and to reduce the skyrocketing cost of higher education,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement Thursday.

“Accreditation has played a role in the bloat that has taken place in higher education administration, and it is time to right size bureaucracy and allow institutions to redirect their resources to students and teaching.”

The final rule arrives six months after an Education Department panel, consisting largely of accrediting agencies and schools, reached a consensus on the accreditation changes. That consensus meant the department had to include most of the language agreed upon by the panel. Some revisions to the committee’s draft regulations resulted from public comments, but much of the language remained intact.

Accreditors will no longer be required to take action against colleges that fail to live up to accrediting standards, nor will those agencies have to inform students a problem exists. As it stands, colleges have two years to come into compliance, but the new rule will double that time. The Education Department has argued that the change simply offers schools a reasonable amount of time to correct problems.

Education advocacy groups contend that the provision could prop up failing schools and prolong harm done to students and taxpayers. Some have called the final rule a giveaway to accreditors and institutions at the expense of students.

“These changes will lead to more students going to schools ill-equipped to provide them a quality education, while simultaneously enriching executives and shareholders of the nation’s most predatory colleges,” said Antoinette Flores, associate director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “The simple question to ask is: Whose interest is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos truly serving?”

Thursday’s rule is a stark contrast to an accreditation provision in the sweeping higher education bill introduced by House Democrats. Within the legislative package, which advanced out of committee Thursday, is a proposal that would give the federal government greater oversight of the accreditation system. House Democrats would require accreditors to focus more on student outcomes in evaluating the quality of a program and make more information publicly available.

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“The Education Department’s effort to weaken accreditation standards highlights the need for Congress to pass legislation that holds schools accountable for students’ success,” said Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education Committee, which drafted the legislation. “The department is undermining a key driver of institutional accountability.”

Scott’s bill to update the Higher Education Act could throw a wrench into the department’s overhaul of the accreditation system, but the reauthorization of the higher education law is an uphill battle.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is not in agreement with House Democrats on the path forward for higher education, although his bill to overhaul the federal law includes similar provisions.

Alexander did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the final accreditation rule. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate committee, urged DeVos to withdraw the rule and allow Congress to address the issues through reauthorization.