Earlier this month the chair of the education committee in the House of Representatives, Virginia Foxx (R-NC), introduced a package of proposed changes to the laws that govern federal financial aid for college. The 224 pages cover a wide range of topics, from credit transfer policies, to changes in school ownership, to student loan repayment plans. The proposed changes have some good and some very bad proposals related to federally recognized accrediting agencies, the numerous private organizations that serve as gatekeepers to federal funding.

The good: A proposal to eliminate conflicts of interest at accrediting agencies would improve the integrity and credibility of accreditation. Further, it would open the door to another useful provision suggested by the GOP, requiring accreditors to examine the reasonableness of the prices the colleges charge.

The very bad: Provisions that are nothing more than culture war bombs would impinge on accreditors’ judgements on academic matters, essentially putting lawmakers in charge. If enacted, they would be an unmitigated disaster for higher education, undermining the very independence that has allowed the American system to thrive.

As compelling as the positive components are, the latter provisions more than outweigh them, turning these accreditation proposals into a massive overall negative. (Some additional proposals relating to accreditation are not analyzed in this commentary.)

Self-Interest Has Undermined Accreditor Effectiveness

One major change in the Foxx package is to prohibit the boards of accrediting agencies from including people employed at or affiliated with member colleges and others with a financial interest. In the past, the conflicting allegiances of the agencies’ leadership has been problematic, not only because they may be too inclined to protect their own institutions or personal profit, but also because antitrust laws prevent them from acting on some of the most important issues, such as tuition, financial aid, and admission policies.

A bit of history to explain how we got here. College accreditation emerged more than a hundred years ago as a way to differentiate what are now called high schools from what are now classified as colleges or universities, and to facilitate student admission into and transfer across the various institutions. In what would become the first accrediting agencies, school leaders got together in their region and decided what criteria to apply to judge a school’s level and quality, and then these standards were used, usually through a peer review process, to admit or reject member schools, and to make suggestions for improvement.

Decades later, after Congress established the GI Bill for World War II veterans, the federal government used the lists of colleges accredited by the pre-existing agencies to determine where GI Bill benefits could be used. The same approach was used in later expansions of federal aid, including the Higher Education Act of 1965.

Because the imprimatur of the federal government lent colleges some credibility and, of particular importance, gave access to federal funding, additional accrediting agencies appeared and sought and were given recognition.

The self-interest of some agencies contributed to scandals in the 1970s that revealed the agencies did not adequately police quality and student interests at their member institutions. After even more scandals the following decade, a bipartisan Congress and the U.S. Department of Education established more expectations and procedures for gaining and keeping federal recognition. The reforms did not, however, address the problem of college owners and administrators making rules for themselves that open the door to billions in federal aid.

Today there are sixty-one federally recognized accreditors, forty-two of them with the authority to determine a school’s eligibility for federal student financial aid. Nearly all accreditors have followed the pattern of the original agencies by placing the decision-making authority into the hands of boards or commissions made up primarily of school officials. (The exceptions include a few state agencies with accrediting authority, and the accreditor of pharmacy schools.)

The unusual economics of higher education makes the need for attention to college costs and prices greater than in other industries, particularly given the potential for financial aid to feed tuition inflation. Competition between schools in higher education, rather than producing higher quality at lower cost, has brought us high quality at the highest cost. The quest for more revenue is a major reason the most elite of these institutions fail to enroll student populations that are more diverse across economic or racial categories. Meanwhile, the colleges that seek to join the elite club follow the leader in setting high tuition prices—but without offering adequate grant aid—feeding ever-higher loan debts among students who attend these schools and their parents. Many college leaders claim that the competition between schools has been problematic, and that working together they could temper the arms race that has plagued higher education. However, antitrust regulators do not trust college leaders with any broad exemption.

The unusual economics of higher education makes the need for attention to college costs and prices greater than in other industries, particularly given the potential for financial aid to feed tuition inflation.

Congress in 1992 added a provision to the Higher Education Act requiring accreditors to review tuitions, but the Federal Trade Commission said that the agencies—if composed of college leaders—would likely violate antitrust laws. As a result the provision was never implemented, and Congress repealed it a few years later.

But accrediting agencies can establish standards regarding tuition and financial aid, without running afoul of antitrust, if the decision-making authority is in the hands of experts who are not also running the colleges. An antitrust law firm commissioned by The Century Foundation explained the distinction like this: “there is a big difference between an association of automobile companies trying to police car prices and Consumer Reports trying to police car prices.”

An Intriguing Proposal: Accreditation for Access and Affordability

The Foxx package would require accreditors to adopt standards relating to the price charged to students in a program (major) in relation to earnings gains. The bill does not say how strict or lenient the standards should be, which means accreditors could apply it in a variety of ways. That’s okay—advocates would analyze the approaches and the credibility of an agency would hinge somewhat on how much they cared about students and taxpayers, a concern they would be better able to carry out if they were independent of the colleges.

A no-conflicts-of-interest accreditor could be transformative in other ways, too. In addition to setting guidelines for fair prices and financial aid, they could assist in the battle against college ratings that fail to prioritize academic quality, and could corral colleges whose enrollments are overly dominated by wealthy students to alter admissions and other policies that have prevented broader access. The highly selective colleges have said they want to take these kinds of steps but can only afford to do so if they do it jointly. A no-conflicts accreditor could create the vehicle for joint action in the public interest.

The current accrediting agencies and their member colleges likely will vigorously oppose legislation requiring all of them to completely revamp their boards. If adoption of the plan is unlikely because of the opposition, a reasonable alternative would be to offer benefits—such as longer periods of recognition—to any agency that agrees to eschew conflicts of interest on their boards while taking action on college affordability and battling top-heavy stratification of enrollments across socioeconomic lines.

An affordability-focused accreditor is not prohibited under current law. Without any new legislation, an existing agency could alter its governance, eliminating conflicts of interest, to allow it to play a more robust role in college prices and admission without risking an antitrust charge.

It is worth pointing out that an affordability-focused accreditor is not prohibited under current law. Without any new legislation, an existing agency could alter its governance, eliminating conflicts of interest, to allow it to play a more robust role in college prices and admission without risking an antitrust charge. Or another entity could seek federal recognition and make that part of its mission—for example, the American Talent Initiative, which has support from Bloomberg Philanthropies and has already enlisted 100-plus top colleges to commit to expanding access for low- and moderate-income students.

A Terrible Idea: Tying Accreditors’ Hands as Part of a Culture War

Control of colleges is a frequent power play by ideological political leaders—see, for example, Hungary and Poland. In the United States this potential problem has been dampened somewhat by the country’s use of numerous, private, accrediting agencies—rather than a powerful, central, ministry of higher education—to make decisions about college eligibility for federal aid. The greater independence of U.S. higher education from politicians, even at public institutions, has contributed enormously to our colleges’ unparalleled excellence on the world stage.

Several provisions of the GOP package would destroy that independence. Read the “Prohibition on Litmus Tests” section that starts on page 183 and you can easily see how telling agencies they cannot make decisions based on any “ideology, belief, or viewpoint” would wreak havoc. How would an accreditor refuse to endorse, say, Astrology University, if not based on the viewpoint that astrology is not a legitimate academic pursuit? Prohibiting “ideology” would prevent accreditors from judging an institution’s commitment to the scientific method.

Further, the litmus-test provisions would invite federal overreach. The U.S. Department of Education could revoke an accreditor’s recognition over a claim that its expectation that colleges teach evolution as part of their biology classes, or a geology curriculum that dates the age of the Earth more than 6,000 years ago, is an illegal imposition of an “ideology, belief, or viewpoint” on colleges. The room for political intrusions and mayhem is frighteningly enormous.

At the same time, the bill empowers colleges that claim a religious mission to run rampant over the standards of any accreditor they choose, by prohibiting the accreditor from enforcing standards that conflict with the religious mission of the school. That might sound like simply an anti-discrimination provision, but it goes to the core of academic excellence: a commitment to free inquiry and the scientific method, without restrictions based on orthodoxy.

Maintaining an accreditor’s ability to enforce all of its standards on religious schools doesn’t mean religious colleges won’t get federal aid. It means, instead, that if they don’t want their dogma to be analyzed critically, they need to choose an accreditor that allows or requires them to impose such restrictions. For example, the bible college accreditor, recognized by the Office of the Secretary of Education, insists that its colleges subscribe to certain “tenets of faith” (such as there-is-only-one-God, the bible is the word of God, Jesus’s virgin birth, and so on), and that the colleges’ faculty teach to that biblical worldview.

The bill would require agencies to accredit these and other colleges with faith-restricted curriculums even if the restrictions directly conflict with an accreditor’s commitment to free inquiry, the scientific method, and academic freedom. Right-wing activists claim that accreditation is a monopoly, but the existence of dozens of federally recognized accreditors, with a wide variety of missions and perspectives, belies that claim. What the activists seem to want is for the accreditors of prestigious institutions, which accredit many church-affiliated institutions that do meet the agency’s standards, to be forced to accept strict religious colleges as members even if those colleges refuse to allow for free inquiry.

Colleges are magnets for dramatic grandstanding and attempts to mold them to fit particular political or ideological goals. In the early days of our republic, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, bemoaned the way that “repeated interferences” of legislative bodies was frequently leading to “the most perplexing and injurious embarrassments.” Such grandstanding is commonplace today, and these provisions will invite even more.

Accreditors’ standards for good governance have helped to avert many of these political encroachments on academic quality by requiring that governing boards be independent, and that procedures for faculty participation be followed. College presidents are able to respond to a tenacious legislator or donor that the college’s accreditation does not allow a political bypass to decision-making procedures. The bill would open a wide door to constant political interference by prohibiting accreditors from questioning “the roles (including actions or statements) of elected and appointed State and Federal officials and legislative bodies.’’

Looking Ahead

The Foxx package is in many respects a messaging vehicle, containing red meat designed to excite the hard-line base of the party, eager to throw mud on higher education no matter the consequences. As a result, the package may well squeeze through the House on a partisan vote and then die in the Senate. On the other hand, perhaps some lawmakers will take it upon themselves to separate the wheat from the chaff in the package, and produce some improvements to current policy.