Tea Partiers and Liberals: Everyone Hates the Federal Financial Aid System

The liberal Center for American Progress and Tea Partiers in Congress are on opposite sides of almost every issue, but they may have found a tiny sliver of turf to share on an important corner of higher education: Both think the federal rules that determine who gets financial aid aren’t keeping up with innovations in college learning.

Currently, to access federal student aid such as Pell grants and loans, schools must be accredited by one of roughly 50 groups that the Department of Education has certified as gatekeepers. These accrediting bodies conduct a form of peer review, in which academics assess one anothers’ academic institutions. That way the federal government isn’t left to decide directly which schools offer a quality education, something “Nobody—and I mean nobody—wants the government to do,” says Dewayne Matthews, a vice president at the Lumina Foundation, which works to expand access to higher education.

The rise of online classes, including Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), at prestigious universities and a proliferation of for-profit colleges, as well as programs that emphasize job skills rather than classroom hours, offer an alternative to the traditional college experience for a growing number of students. But right now, no one’s vetting the quality of online courses, which makes it hard for one school to know if it should accept credit from another. And without accreditation, schools offering nontraditional classes can’t tap into guaranteed federal financial aid, which is key for survival. “You can see a clear sense that there is a something stuck in pipe that’s holding up the ability to innovate,” Matthews says.

Even the White House has said the current system is holding back models that could reach news students, potentially at lower costs. The question then becomes who should give the stamp of approval to online courses and other new forms of nontraditional higher education?

Two Republicans, Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Florida Congressman Ron DeSantis, have proposed nearly identical bills that would let states set up or designate their own accreditors, not just for typical colleges but also for apprenticeship programs and individual courses at both nonprofit and for-profit schools. Neither Lee nor DeSantis is known for having a particular interest or expertise in high ed. But they are allies of Heritage Action, the Tea Party-aligned conservative group that has been pushing accreditation reform for several years.

David Bergeron, CAP’s vice president for postsecondary education, agrees the current system needs to be fixed but takes a different approach. Formerly Education Secretary Arne Dunchan’s chief adviser on higher ed, Bergeron proposes an independent national body to accredit online schools and individual courses. “I’m concerned that there is learning occurring at one level and accreditation is occurring at another,” he says. Bergeron co-wrote a proposal with Steven Klinsky, a priavte equity investor and longtime supporter of education reform who from 2001 to 2005 was the chairman of the for-profit college provider Strayer Education Corp. They envisioned that with course-level accrediting, ”students might take their core lectures tuition-free and online from a nationally renowned professor in a MOOC and then attend supplementary weekly study groups with a live professor and other students in their home towns, all at a lower overall cost than a traditional course today.”

The nation’s traditional colleges and current accreditors want a say in whatever new system emerges. Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, says her group is piloting an effort to think through how best to evaluate the quality of providers that offer new types of classes, such as MOOCs and digital badges. She says that may not end up as official “accreditation,” but that spinoff from a traditional accrediting body could bestow some other formal designation. At this point, there’s agreement all around on the problem, but a long way to go to find the solution.

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