Trump administration seeks overhaul of federal standards for college accreditors

Inside Higher Ed

Betsy DeVos issued a proposal Tuesday to loosen federal standards for college accreditors, arguing that the changes would spur innovation.

The education secretary wants to allow colleges to expedite plans to outsource programs and to add new degree offerings or branch campuses without getting an accreditor’s approval. The changes also would make it easier for accreditors who don’t fully meet federal standards to retain their approval.

“With these reforms, our nation’s colleges and universities can spend more time and effort on serving students and less time, energy and money focused on bureaucratic compliance,” she said in a written statement.

Many of those changes delivered on long-standing demands by higher ed groups to streamline the accreditation process. But consumer advocates and other critics have warned that the proposal would unravel oversight of colleges and allow more low-quality programs to enroll students and access federal student aid.

The move also fits the broader agenda of the Trump administration to roll back regulations. DeVos issued proposals last year to raise the bar for defrauded students who are seeking debt cancellation and to repeal the gainful-employment rule for career education programs. The changes to standards for accreditors, the gatekeeping bodies for Title IV federal student aid funds, could have even broader implications for higher ed than those regulatory changes.

“Their intent is to make sure that colleges in particular are not losing accreditation,” said Antoinette Flores, associate director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress.

In April, an appointed panel reached agreement on a number of proposed changes to accreditation standards after a months-long process known as negotiated rule making. During that process, the Trump administration backed off or compromised on some of its most controversial proposals, including provisions that would have shaken up regional accreditation and allowed outsourcing of the entirety of academic programs.

But DeVos and department officials celebrated the consensus reached on proposed changes — a rare outcome for negotiated rule making — as a historic win for the administration. Reaching the agreement, she said, “shows that, despite the naysayers, we can work together to rethink higher education, protect students through meaningful accountability, support innovative and diverse educational options, and allow colleges and universities to be more responsive to students’ educational needs and career aspiration.”

Before the Trump administration launched the new regulatory process, accreditors had faced years of pressure from lawmakers and the Education Department to pursue tougher oversight of poor-performing colleges. The poster child for many critics became the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), an accreditor of mostly for-profits and a handful of other colleges, which the Obama administration sought to eliminate before DeVos restored its recognition last year. (continue reading…)