Photo: Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Newscom

Photo: Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Newscom

Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., has introduced a proposal to fundamentally restructure higher education accreditation. The proposal would allow states to establish flexible accreditation models that would infuse a level of customization in higher education that is currently impossible under the existing accreditation system. The Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act—or HERO Act—would empower states to allow any entity to credential courses and pave the way for a more flexible college experience for students and make possible a dramatic reduction in college costs.

Currently, accreditation is a de facto federal enterprise, with federally sanctioned regional and national accrediting agencies now the sole purveyors of accreditation.

The result has been a system that has created barriers to entry for innovative start-ups—insulating traditional brick-and-mortar schools from market forces that could reduce costs—yet has made it difficult for students to customize their higher education experience to fully reach their earnings and career potential. And because entire institutions are accredited instead of individual courses, accreditation is a poor measure of course quality and a poor indicator of the skills acquired by students.

Under DeSantis’ proposal, which mirrors the HERO Act introduced in the Senate earlier this year by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, states would be able to empower any entity—universities, businesses, non-profit institutions, etc.—to credential individual courses. South Carolina, for instance, could allow Boeing to credential aeronautical engineering courses, and Texas could enable Texas Instruments to credential mathematics courses. As Sen. Lee explained in a speech at Heritage last winter:

“Imagine having access to credit and student aid and for a program in computer science accredited by Apple or in music accredited by the New York Philharmonic; college-level history classes on site at Mount Vernon or Gettysburg; medical-technician training developed by the Mayo Clinic; taking massive open online courses offered by the best teachers in the world from your living room or the public library…

“This reform could allow a student to completely customize her transcript—and college experience—while allowing federal aid to follow her through all of these different options. Students could mix and match courses, programs, tests, on-line and on-campus credits à la carte, pursuing their degree or certification at their own pace while bringing down costs to themselves, their families and the taxpayers. This is what conservative reform should be trying to create—an open, affordable, innovative higher education system to better serve and secure all Americans in a global information economy.”

From the student’s perspective, decoupling federal financing from accreditation—the heart of the HERO Act—means being able to create a totally customized higher education experience. A student might spend a semester in a traditional college setting followed by an apprenticeship at Microsoft, and then spend time taking individual courses approved by a variety of organizations. Although a traditional bachelor’s degree still might be the preferred route for many students, this alternative route would enable students to craft a customized transcript they could present to employers as soon as they have mastered the skills and competencies employers value, and importantly, to do so without accumulating tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

Accreditation reform is long overdue. By enabling states to take the lead on accreditation, the HERO Act creates a promising way to drive down costs and increase customization and opportunity in higher education.