U.S. Senate Hearing on Accreditation Shines a Light on CAEP

On December 12, I attended a hearing in the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) billed as “Accreditation as Quality Assurance: Meeting the Needs of 21st Century Learning.” This was one of a series of 13 hearings the Committee is holding in preparation for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) chaired the hearing, and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) sat as ranking Republican on the Committee. Other members in attendance were Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Al Franken (D-MN), and Christopher Murphy (D-CT). A full recording of the hearing along with written remarks from speakers can be found here. (You will note my presence in the audience!)

Four speakers presented views on the role of accreditation in higher education, including Art Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University (NY), and a critical friend of teacher preparation. Levine held up the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) as the exemplar of accreditation for the 21st century. He noted the broad criticism of teacher education as a key driver in CAEP’s creation and in the development of its new standards. He heralded the leadership of CAEP for vision and boldness in raising standards for teacher preparation and in opening the door for all providers to be accredited. He lauded the shift from process to outcomes and noted that CAEP’s experience provides evidence that accrediting associations have the capacity to make the changes needed for 21st-century learning.

No senators asked questions about teacher preparation per se, but several questions emerged as themes during the discussion:

  • Does the federal government require accreditors to utilize some criteria that are not relevant to ensuring quality?
  • Does the accreditation process hinder innovation in a time where there is so much demand on higher education to change?
  • Should the federal role be to focus on financial compliance while accreditors focus on quality?
  • What role should accreditation play in ensuring affordability of college?
  • How can accreditation address the skills gap so that empty jobs can be filled with skilled workers?
  • Is there an inherent conflict of interest built into accreditation, particularly since peers are reviewing programs?
  • Should the federal government establish a floor for access to student financial aid, such as at least a 50% graduation rate?
  • If accreditation is a meaningful quality control mechanism, why is such a tiny proportion of colleges unsuccessful in achieving accreditation?

Toward the end of the hearing, Senator Harkin took the microphone to express doubts about the administration’s college rating proposal, saying he’d gotten an earful at the recent Department of Education hearing at the University of Northern Iowa. One concern expressed was the efficacy of using one single rating for an entire university with a multitude of programs ranging in quality. Another was the possibility of cutting off the only options for some students due to finances or geography.

The HELP Committee will continue higher education hearings next year.

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Jane E. West

AACTE Education Policy Consultant