Recap of the HELP Committee Accreditation Hearing

The recent accreditation hearing before the Senate Committee on Health Education Labor and Pensions (“HELP”) was fairly eventful. The panel featured:

Anne Neal provided some of the most provocative testimony, as her position seem to be, no matter the intrinsic value of accreditation, it should have no role in determining Title IV eligibility.

The hearing featured a number of the ideas that will likely feature as part of higher education act reauthroization proposals related to accreditation:  involving students in the accreditation process (as they are in European accreditation), using a “lighter touch” for certain schools that pose less risk, that accreditors should only focus on quality and not the other functions that Congress and other policy folks have thrust upon them, and  the creation of a pilot program that would create an alternative pathway for schools to access Title IV without going through accreditation.

Also notable, and as mentioned in press accounts, Corinthian featured fairly heavily in the hearing and the role of accreditors in finding (or failing to find) the various alleged frauds that took place at Corinthian schools.   Indeed, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Chris Murphy were particularly aggressive in questioning Albert Gray, the president and CEO of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, who was a main accreditor of Corinthian’s Everest Colleges.  As Dr. Gray summed up in his closing remarks:

“Some of the comments I heard this morning about about Corinthian show . . . say to me that there is a lot of misunderstanding about accreditation, in particular with respect to Corinthian, but accreditation in general with respect to its role in the sustainability of educational institutions.” (see the video, at 1:52:53)

This theme was taken up earlier by George A. Pruitt, the President of Thomas Edison State College:

“Part of the challenge is that there is a conflicted expectation for what accreditation is.  You [Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)] referred to it as a regulator.  We are charged to do certain compliance reviews.  We view our role as an assessor.  As assessor behaves differently than a regulator.  A regulator prescribes the behaviors of the institution.  Accreditation does not prescribe behaviors of the institution.  . . .  Regulators and banks tend to proscribe the things that bankers can do and can not do.  Accreditors tend not to prescribe what academics can do and can not do as long as the results are such that we can demonstrate that they add value to the people that support us and the students.”  (see the video at 1:40:57).

It may be that policy makers are asking accreditation to do things for which it was never intended.  Unfortunately, that questions – the very question prompting the hearing (what should accreditors do?) is still open.

Lastly,  HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) noted there will be a future hearing on innovation in higher education– which will likely address issues of accreditation again —  and that the Committee will look to have a bipartisan markup some time this September.