The second decade of the 21st century has begun with a great deal of activity on the accreditation front. Over the last few months, both the American Council on Education (ACE) and the Commission on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) have come out with final reports of years-long investigations into the status of accreditation, and change is in the air.
In the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, due to come up either in 2013 or 2014, Congress, according to the CHEA, is poised “to further regulate accreditation.” In addition, the U.S. Department of Education has taken a “detailed focus on the operation of accreditation through its periodic review of accrediting organizations, . . [and] has asserted authority over accreditation similar to that of a ministry of education in other countries.” This amounts to “A fundamental shift of responsibility and authority for academic judgment, . . away from the accreditation and academic communities to government” 
The accrediting agencies are under pressure from Congress and from the DOE because they do not see that the accreditation process has assured quality of education or of outcomes. The ACE report understates the severity of the problem: “Policymakers and the public alike have raised questions about student academic achievement, [and] the continued presence of substandard institutions.”
One may speculate that misuse of Pell grant funds by a number of for-profit institutions first caught Congress’ eye, but there have also been continuing—and mostly unanswered—criticisms of (the lack of) student achievement, for instance in Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift. Attempts to address this issue, through such efforts as the Association of American Colleges and Universities Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative, simply do not make the same kind of headlines, and these measured, long-term responses do not satisfy the demand for immediate solutions. To call the pace of change in higher education “glacial” is to insult glaciers.
Nevertheless, the system of regional accreditation remains the best way to assure quality in US higher education. The ACE report makes the point that originally, the system of accreditation merely held colleges and universities accountable to their peers, loosely grouped by region. It was only after the government began to invest in education for veterans after the Korean war that it deputized the commissions to act in a stewardship role. That function was “formalized and extended by the original Higher Education Act of 1965”, the very act that is up for renewal.
It is the variety and complexity of accreditation tasks which makes the existing accrediting systems a better choice for ensuring quality than assigning that role to the government. Even accepting the argument, for the moment, that the commissions should have been more draconian in denying accreditation to certain institutions, or that measurement of student outcomes has been inadequate, it is still far easier to strengthen the present system than for the DOE and Congress to set up an oversight bureau to replace it. Such a Ministry of Education would be the worst of big government nightmares, and would inevitably create an “us vs. them,” higher education vs. government antagonism. When it works well, the visiting accreditation team helps an institution with its strategic planning. Government oversight merely ensures compliance with regulations.
As both the CHEA and ACE reports repeatedly stress, the public accountability function is only part of what accreditation is designed to do, and the only area in which the government has a legitimate interest. Already, three of the regional commissions—the Western, North Central, and Southern—have adopted requirements intended to speak to student outcomes, and the others will shortly follow suit. The four-year-long process followed by the ACE and involving many of the foremost higher education groups was not necessary to produce the final report: most of the final findings were pretty obvious from the beginning. Rather, that process built a consensus among those groups and among the higher education community that the accreditation process must be changed to reflect the new demands that are being placed upon it. The parties who have participated now know that if they do not act, Congress and the DOE will.
The Higher Education Act reauthorization will also likely include attention to the credit hour, something that the Carnegie Commission is in the midst of rethinking. Although directly related to student outcomes, this action,
-  Council for Higher Education Accreditation. The CHEA Initiative Final Report. November 2012, p1. http://www.chea.org/news/NR_2012.11.29_CHEA_Initiative_Final_Report.htm ↩
-  American Council on Education. Assuring Academic Quality in the 21st Century: Self-Regulation in a New Era. A Report of the ACE National Task Force on Institutional Accreditation. 2012, p7. http://www.acenet.edu/news-room/Pages/Assuring-Academic-Quality-in-the-21st-Century.aspx ↩
-  Arum, Richard, and Josipa Roksa. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. University Of Chicago Press 2011. ↩
-  Association of American Colleges and Universities. Liberal Education and America’s Promise. http://www.aacu.org/leap/ ↩
-  ACE p9 ↩