The Higher Learning Commission’s Accreditation Gamble

Accrediting bodies play an important role in judging the quality (or at least the competency) of American colleges and universities. There are six accreditors which cover the majority of non-profit, non-religious postsecondary institutions, including the powerful Higher Learning Commission in the Midwest.  The HLC recently informed Apollo Group, the owner of the University of Phoenix, that it may be placed on probation due to concerns about administrative and governance structures.

Part of Phoenix’s accrediting concerns may be due to a philosophical shift at the HLC, emphasizing the public purposes of higher education. As noted in an Inside Higher Ed article on the topic, Sylvia Manning, president of the HLC, stated the priority that education be a public good. The new accrediting criteria include the following statement:

“The institution’s educational responsibilities take primacy over other purposes, such as generating financial returns for investors, contributing to a related or parent organization, or supporting external interests.”

This shift occurs in the midst of questions about the purposes of the current accreditation structure. While colleges must be accredited in order for students to receive federal financial aid dollars, the federal government currently has no direct involvement in the accreditation structure. Accrediting bodies also focus on degree programs instead of individual courses, something which has also been questioned.

Given the current decentralized structure of accreditation, Phoenix could easily move to another of the main regional nonprofit accrediting bodies—or it could go through a body focusing on private colleges and universities. The latter would likely be easier for Phoenix, as it would have to answer to more like-minded critics. While these bodies are viewed as being less prestigious than the HLC, it is an open question whether students care about the accrediting body—as long as they can receive financial aid.

The Higher Learning Commission is taking a gamble with its move toward placing Phoenix on probation, partially due to the new criteria. They need to carefully consider whether it is better to have oversight over one of the nation’s largest and most powerful postsecondary institutions or to steer them toward a more friendly accrediting body. Traditional accrediting bodies should also consider the possibility that the federal government will get into the accreditation business if for-profits leave groups like the HLC. If the HLC chooses to focus on Phoenix’s control instead of its academic competency, a chain reaction could be set off which may end up with them being replaced by federal oversight.

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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