The higher education accreditation process in the United States is intended to ensure that colleges and universities meet thresholds of quality, but there have been ongoing discussions about ways the system could be reformed or improved. Some of the major reforms being debated include:
Streamlining the accreditation process. The full accreditation process from initial self-study through site visits and decision making can take several years to complete. Many argue this lengthy process is bureaucratic and wastes resources for both the institutions and accreditors. Reforms focus on simplifying documentation requirements, allowing for more concurrent reviews where possible, and shortening timelines for decision making. Others counter that thorough reviews are necessary to properly assess quality.
Increasing transparency. Accreditation reviews and decisions are generally not made publicly available in detail due to confidentiality policies. Some advocacy groups are pushing for accreditors to be more transparent, such as publishing full site visit reports and decision rationales. Proponents argue this would provide more accountability and information for students and families. Privacy laws and competitive concerns for institutions have limited transparency reforms so far.
Reducing conflicts of interest. Accreditors rely heavily on peer review, but there are often ties between reviewers and the institutions under review through things like membership on academic boards or advisory roles. Reform efforts look to tighten conflict of interest policies, reduce financial ties between reviewers and reviewees, and bring more outside voices into the process. Others note the value of subject matter expertise during reviews.
Incorporating new quality indicators. Accreditors currently focus heavily on inputs like curriculum, faculty qualifications, facilities and finances. But there are calls to give more weight to outputs and outcomes like post-graduation salaries, debt levels, employment rates, and other metrics of student success. Tracking non-academic development is also an area ripe for reform. Determinng causality and addressing confounding variables is challenging with outcomes.
Encouraging innovation. The accreditation system is sometimes criticized for discouraging innovative practices that fall outside existing standards. Reforms explore ways to safely support experimental programs through parallel accreditation pathways, waiving certain standards for a set time period, or establishing regulatory sandboxes. But balancing quality assurance with flexibility remains a difficult issue.
Comparing accreditors. Despite operating in the same market, individual accreditors have different standards, priorities and levels of rigor. Ideas look at conducting reliability studies across accreditors to see how review outcomes compare given equivalent institutions. More transparency around accreditor performance could help alignment and provide information to guide institutional choices. Variation reflects the diversity of US higher ed.
Addressing for-profit impacts. For-profit colleges have faced more oversight and closures tied to questionable practices and student outcomes. Some argue this highlights a need for enhanced consumer protections within the tripartite accreditation-state-federal oversight system, along with stronger linkage between accreditation and Title IV funding. Others caution against an overly prescriptive one-size-fits-all approach at the risk of stifling innovation.
While the general principles and tripartite structure of US accreditation appear durable, improvements to processes aim to balance quality assurance with flexibility, innovation, and transparency. Meaningful reform faces pragmatic challenges around feasibility of implementation, cost, unintended consequences, and the diversity of stakeholders across American higher education. Most experts argue for cautious, evidence-based advancement that preserves core quality functions while creating a more responsive, accountable and student-centric system over the long term. The higher education landscape is constantly evolving, so ongoing assessment and adjustment of this self-regulatory process will likely remain ongoing topics of policy discussion.