DeVos tells higher ed leaders the industry is ‘due for a rethink’

Education Dive

Dive Brief:

  • Ahead of the federal negotiated rulemaking session on higher ed accreditation that kicks off next month, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos laid out her department’s priorities in a meeting Wednesday with industry leaders.
  • According to prepared remarks, she said it is time to “rethink” higher education and called on the industry to expand pathways within postsecondary education to address a wider variety of students, interests and employment opportunities. However, many attendees expressed concern that the department’s regulatory push could cause confusion and conflict with other priorities, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported.
  • DeVos said the upcoming rulemaking session will address issues such as clarifying responsibilities among accreditors and state and federal regulators, as well as reviewing which existing accreditation regulations are “ambiguous, repetitious, or unnecessarily burdensome.”

Dive Insight:

On the official agenda for the rulemaking session, which begins on Jan. 14, are requirements for accreditors, criteria used to recognize those groups, simplification of the department’s recognition and review process, and clarification of oversight responsibilities.

Accreditation in higher education is a growing focus as stricter rules for accreditors implemented by the Obama administration are increasingly perceived as a constraint on meeting market demand for postsecondary alternatives. Colleges and accreditors have asked for less red tape in the accreditation process, The Chronicle notes, as well as flexibility in the rules to pursue new models such as competency based education.

The desire for these changes draws attention to broader shifts in higher education. Industry leaders have called for accrediting agencies to develop standards that create specific and differentiated expectations for various types of institutions, acknowledging the wider range of postsecondary options available today. Greater transparency and the use of peer benchmarking are also desired.

The Ed Department plays a critical role in these requests. In her remarks, DeVos said the department is updating a guidebook to make accreditor recognition “less burdensome” and is developing a tool to improve information-sharing between the agency and accreditors. She also said a priority of the department is “making clear” that all accreditors face the same standards and “therefore should all be seen as equals in the evaluation of educational quality.”

Under DeVos, the department has continued to come out in support of embattled accreditor ACICS, which oversaw a trio of for-profit colleges whose high-profile collapses affected tens of thousands of students. In November, DeVos reinstated its permanent federal recognition despite concerns that it was not compliant with the full set of criteria required to get its status back. Several Democratic lawmakers have pushed back on the decision, and this week the Ed Department’s inspector general said it would review the matter.

In her remarks at ACE, DeVos also reinforced the department’s departure from the Obama administration’s use of guidance to inform higher education policy. She said the department will limit the use of new guidance, adding, “The Department doesn’t make law; it implements it.” Meanwhile, regulations including a repeal of gainful employment and new, stricter rules for investigating sexual misconduct are expected from the department.