These Small Changes to the PROSPER Act Could Unlock Higher Education Accreditation Reform
Mary Clare Amselem /
“Underwater Basket Weaving,” “Tree Climbing,” the “Art of Walking.” Believe it or not, those are all courses taught at accredited colleges and universities in the United States.
The modern system of accreditation, codified in the Higher Education Act of 1965, supposedly exists to ensure that taxpayer dollars do not go toward courses of questionable value. I think it’s safe to say the system has a few cracks.
Congress is expected to soon debate the PROSPER Act, which would reauthorize the Higher Education Act of 1965. The PROSPER Act offers some considerable improvements to current policy, such as eliminating loan forgiveness programs and the costly PLUS loan program, which provides virtually unlimited loans to graduate students and the parents of undergraduate students.
But, until policymakers tackle the problems facing the broken accreditation system head-on, higher education will continue to suffer in terms of cost and quality.
Importantly, the PROSPER Act would allow new entities to become accreditors. This would be an improvement on current policy, which limits accreditors to a select few who serve as gatekeepers of federal funds.
However, the PROSPER Act limits the qualifications for those who can apply to be an accreditor to entities that have “as a principal purpose the accrediting of institutions of higher education or programs.”
While only a brief sentence in the 500-page bill, this qualifier for potential accreditors would likely prevent meaningful accreditation reform in the PROSPER Act.
A true quality assurance system would allow individual entities with industry-specific knowledge to put their stamp of approval on courses and programs. This would allow market signals to inform consumers on the value of a course while protecting students from courses that teach virtually no marketable skills.
The Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act, introduced by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., would create a stronger system of higher education quality assurance by decoupling federal financing from accreditation and enabling entities with industry-specific knowledge, as well as trade organizations, nonprofits, and universities, to credential individual courses and courses of study.
While the PROSPER Act would not decouple federal financing from accreditation—thereby breaking the federal monopoly on accreditors and allowing states to create a parallel system—allowing entities whose principal purpose is not accrediting to enter the accreditation space may be a significant step forward.
The business community has unique knowledge about the skillsets it needs in future employees. The lack of communication between employers and the higher education system does a disservice to the American economy, as well as American students.
Policymakers should consider removing the “principal purpose” clause from PROSPER to allow for policies that open the door for the restoration of true quality assurance in higher education.