Did You Know? Ed Dept. Punts on Accreditation Rules for Online Classes

Accreditation agencies have the responsibility of judging whether colleges are offering students a quality education. Since COVID-19, however, their biggest changes have been to dismiss concerns about short-changing students. This change can be seen most clearly with online classes.

Ordinarily, accreditation standards would ensure educational quality, and schools that cut corners would risk penalties and fines. Now, however, standards have been suspended.

The Department of Education has sent a letter to accreditors that waives online quality requirements:

To allow the flexibility that the current COVID-19 situation requires, the Department is waiving the normal process by which accrediting agencies are required to develop, seek public comment, and enact new policies for the limited purpose of allowing agencies to implement the changes described above (and in the earlier distance education communication), so long as the policy changes are approved by the agency’s board (or other decision-making body).

The effects of the pandemic have pushed the Department to see their rules as too restrictive. More flexibility means more experimentation, and accrediting agencies will take a hands-off approach as colleges try new methods to replace in-person classes.

That new strategy also relies on users—the students—to determine what online teaching method works best. “If students don’t think an online course is good enough, they’ll just drop it. We’ll have competition unfettered by outside ‘experts,’” said George Leef, the Martin Center’s director of editorial content.

If accreditation rules have been holding back colleges from making improvements, perhaps the Department of Education should reconsider how much power accreditors deserve. The Department could solicit more student and faculty feedback on what makes a course high-quality instead of using outside evaluators like accreditors. Student and faculty input could go a long way to improving quality and using their feedback to determine the best types of online classes. Empowering those who experience the benefits and the costs of higher ed during the pandemic could mean a dramatic improvement, even in uncertain times.

Megan Zogby is a Martin Center intern.