US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions

Statement of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) At the HELP Committee Hearing: “Accreditation as Quality Assurance: Meeting the Needs of 21st Century Learning”

*As Prepared For Delivery*

Thursday, December 12, 2013

“Today’s hearing is the fourth in our series examining critical issues in postsecondary education ahead of the reauthorization the Higher Education Act.  I said at our first hearing that we would spend time examining each player in the regulatory ‘triad’ that oversees colleges.  Today we will take a close look at our accreditation system. 

“Accreditation’s role is to help ensure an acceptable level of quality across the wide spectrum of American higher education.  Under the Higher Education Act, accreditation is required for institutions to access federal financial aid.   Students are eligible for federal student aid only if they attend an institution that is accredited by an accrediting organization recognized by the Department of Education (ED).  Consequently, accrediting agencies are considered gatekeepers of federal financial aid, and are tasked with helping institutions continuously improve based on their missions, while also overseeing their quality.

“As we look to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, we have the opportunity to reassess the law and ensure we have an accreditation system that meets the needs of today’s students and taxpayers.   We need to examine whether the current accreditation system sufficiently guarantees the quality of education students receive at postsecondary institutions.  We also face the challenge of improving the system to ensure it can adapt to our rapidly changing 21st-century higher education system. 

“In recent Committee hearings, I have raised serious concerns about the ability and capacity of our accreditation system to effectively monitor over 7,000 institutions of higher education of various scope, mission and size, and I’ve also identified conflicts of interest.  In recent years, we have seen too many instances of students and taxpayers shouldering the burden and consequences of poor oversight.  While we heard from some accreditors in the course of the Committee’s hearings on for-profit colleges, today’s hearing offers the first opportunity to look across all types of accreditation and at the system as a whole.

“I hope we can have a robust discussion about the current status of accreditation in U.S. higher education.  We’ll look to our panel of witnesses today to give us their views on what improvements should be made.  As I said at an earlier hearing on the triad, many would agree that if we wiped the slate clean today and drew up a new system from scratch, we might opt for a system other than the triad.  Today, we have a great opportunity to examine the strengths and weaknesses of accreditation, and to clarify what we expect from it.  This examination will influence our thinking as we reauthorize the law. 

“I look forward to working with our distinguished ranking member, Senator Alexander, and my other colleagues on both sides of aisle to ensure that our higher education system remains affordable, accessible and results-oriented, both for students and taxpayers.” 

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