Pitching an alternative accreditation system

U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, this week reintroduced a bill to create an alternative accreditation system that would set a pilot program allowing previously unaccredited institutions to tap federal student aid.

“America needs a 21st-century higher education system that embraces all the new ways people can learn and acquire skills without having to go the traditional four-year college degree track,” Rubio said in a press release. “To modernize our higher education system, we must end the status quo accreditation system, which stifles competition, fuels soaring tuition costs and limits opportunities for nontraditional students, such as working parents.”

While accreditation is supposed to provide quality assurance and accountability, it can focus too much on inputs and process, resulting in an inefficient system that limits innovation and competition, according to the senators. The proposed Higher Education Innovation Act would create a five-year pilot for an “alternative, outcomes-based process” to access federal student financial aid.

“Through this process, students would have the ability to use federal student aid funds to attend institutions that offer high-quality, innovative, and effective programs and have a proven track record of successful student outcomes,” according to the press release.

The bill also would streamline new programs’ eligibility to participate in federal student aid programs “so long as they are generating positive student outcomes.” Currently, higher education programs must exist for several years before they are eligible to apply to receive federal financial aid.

Although the higher education accreditation process has come under scrutiny over the past few years, most federal lawmakers and college leaders support it as a way of ensuring a quality product. On the House side, Republican leaders plan to examine accreditation with an eye toward student learning and outcomes as they begin to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.

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