Accreditation's Importance - Guest Blog: Kevin Walthers, Allan Hancock College

By Kevin Walther, President, Allan Hancock College
Originally published in Lompoc Record

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

While issues concerning accreditation for California Community Colleges have been less visible in the past 18 months, quality control and peer review of our institutions remain consequential and relevant. The Federal Department of Education has outlined plans for accreditation reform and a rule-making process that may portend substantial changes in how U.S. institutions of higher education are accredited. In this 72 Strong guest blog post from Dr. Kevin Walthers, the Allan Hancock President identifies some of the key issues surrounding this process, and cautions regulators and everyone who values higher education to pay close attention to the debate.

Few students and parents, if any, give much thought to institutional accreditation when choosing a college or university. The term “accreditation” may even make your eyes glaze over, but the reality is that it’s an incredibly important concept.

Allan Hancock College is accredited by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), a federally-recognized, regional accreditation agency. Regional accreditors — there are seven recognized by the Department of Education — are considered by many to be the gold standard when it comes to ensuring educational quality.

As the regional accreditation agency for community colleges in California, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands, ACCJC provides a peer review process that ensures member institutions meet the standards expected of a higher education institution as established in federal law.

This approval is not just a badge of honor for Allan Hancock College. It is the fundamental endorsement that allows our students to apply for federal Pell Grants and student loans through the Department of Education. Educational entities that do not meet these standards are prohibited from accessing federal programs.

This year, the Department of Education will review the role of accreditation. Although this review will likely not receive much media attention, potential policy changes may significantly impact college operations and the $170 billion allocated annually to student grants and loans.

The upcoming regulatory review brings a welcome opportunity for colleges, universities and accreditors to rethink the bureaucratic hurdles placed on colleges. According to a white paper released last year, the department seeks to empower students, institutions and innovators by rethinking the accreditation process. The department’s stated goal is to ensure “a world-class education for this generation and the next.”

While laudable, we should be mindful that poorly-designed policy decisions often lead to unintended consequences.

Taxpayers should be particularly concerned with proposals to expand financial aid to short-term programs and to allow accredited institutions to integrate offerings with non-accredited entities. This has the potential for abuse in ways that are more than just hypothetical.

Over the past decade, we have seen issues within the for-profit sector of higher education. Recently, two for-profit institutions — Corinthian Colleges and ITT — closed, leaving taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars, not counting the cost to local community colleges, many of which took in the abandoned students.

In her book “Lower Ed,” Tressie McMillan Cottam documents the manner in which for-profit institutions provide overly optimistic promises of student success while obfuscating the actual cost of attendance. The result is unmanageable debt-load on students and default rates that exceed 50 percent.

Opening federal grant and loan access to predatory institutions with questionable programs is more likely to result in another round of taxpayer bailouts than it is to foster innovation.

Community colleges demonstrate year after year an ability to meet regional needs and develop talented and highly-trained workers. The proposed federal regulations seem to advocate for unproven programs that will dilute the already-scarce support provided to community college students.

Regional accreditation protects quality and accessible offerings of higher education. Changes to the current system should be approached carefully with a full understanding of the role accreditation plays in protecting students and taxpayers.