Politics & Policy

Reform Higher-Ed Accreditation for the 21st Century

(Michael Zhang/Dreamstime)

We all have our own American Dreams. Some of us aspire to be chief executive officers or the owners of our own small businesses. Others aspire to be talented teachers or skilled engineers. No matter the dream, we all want success, and we all want to be able to provide for ourselves and our families. We work hard so we can live comfortably, safely, and securely. In the 20th century, having a college degree usually guaranteed this outcome. If you graduated from a traditional four-year university, you could attain a well-paying job and eventually start a family.

Today, we have this same dream, but the global economy has vastly changed. Thanks to innovative ideas and new advancements in technology, 21st-century jobs require more technical skills and training than ever before. Having a college degree no longer guarantees that you will be competitive in the job market. Too often, students struggle to find employment after graduation and face massive student-loan debt. In America today, college graduates have more than $1 trillion in combined student loans, and that number only continues to climb.

The goal of public policy must be to ensure not only that an abundance of jobs are available for our people, but also that our people are equipped with the skills needed to attain those jobs. We can start by supporting the many innovative education approaches that have sprung up in recent decades, including technical schools, online colleges, and other alternative institutions. They help people get the advanced training and skills they need with more flexibility, lower costs, and less debt than most traditional colleges and universities.

Although these programs have proven to hold great promise, they are neglected by our current higher-education system. They are ineligible for federal student aid and their accreditation is often delayed for years. These innovative providers cannot compete with the cartel of existing brick-and-mortar colleges and universities that dominates the accreditation process and shields our higher-education system from reform, competition, and accountability. Many institutions supported by this system continue the lucrative practice of graduating students with tens of thousands of dollars in student-loan debt and degrees that will not lead to jobs.

#share#Our higher-education system should be reformed to ensure that alternative education pathways are no longer stigmatized or discredited by the existing higher-education cartel. We have a responsibility to ensure that higher education is of the highest quality and that new, low-cost providers have an easier entryway into the market. That is why I have proposed a voluntary, alternative system of accreditation for innovative education providers as well as existing colleges and universities. Schools that offer a high-quality education and have a track record of helping students graduate, obtain jobs, and pay back their student loans could participate in this metrics-based authorization process in place of today’s burdensome input-focused accreditation process.

#related#The bill I introduced with Senator Michael Bennet (D., Colo.) creates a new authorization pathway for accessing federal financial aid, such as Pell grants. It does not discriminate between college and non-college providers, but instead rewards any higher-education program that demonstrates high student outcomes, including student learning and return on investment. In addition, our proposal offers an innovative approach to paying for higher education that reduces the risk of pursuing a degree. These ideas are built on quality standards and tangible results, not unrealistic proposals that only grow government at the expense of taxpayers.

It is time to turn the page on our outdated higher-education system and usher in one better fit for the 21st century — a system that welcomes and promotes innovative pathways to a degree, one that will close the skills gap by offering financial aid to students who choose alternative providers, and one that allows students to earn credit for the existing skills and training they bring to the classroom. If we do these things, we can guarantee once again that learning will lead to success.

—Marco Rubio represents Florida in the U.S. Senate and is seeking the Republican presidential nomination.

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