Doubt lingers over bona fide unaccredited schools

After two days of hearings in the Senate Governmental Relations Committee about diploma mill abuses, questions remained about how the federal government would treat credentials from unaccredited colleges that offer legitimate degrees.

The hearings exposed more than $150,000 in improper federal payments to diploma mills and dozens of instances of federal employees with fake degrees, and pointed to the likelihood that the problem is widespread.

But administrative reforms now underway in the Education Department, which is compiling a list of accredited schools, and the Office of Personnel Management, which is adjusting federal personnel forms to highlight bogus credentials, don't address a gray area of the issue: bona fide schools that aren't accredited.

Sally Stroup, the Education Department's assistant secretary for postsecondary education, presented testimony to the panel this morning that "there are many postsecondary institutions providing a quality education that have chosen not to participate in the federal student aid programs and may not have sought accreditation, which is required for federal student aid purposes."

Stroup said most such bona fide unaccredited schools the department deals with are religious institutions.

Senate committee chairman Susan Collins (R-Me.) and House Government Affairs Committee chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) have acknowledged the problem of recognizing bona fide unaccredited schools.

After today's hearing, Collins said, "I think the Education Department is reluctant to assess the quality" of nonaccredited schools. "Right now it relies on the independent accreditation process," she said. "We are going to look at that. It seems to me that the [Education] department is the logical agency to take the lead."

Alan Contreras, administrator of the Office of Degree Authorization of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, told the committee that his agency has cleared fewer than 10 nonaccredited schools to offer degrees for use in his state. "The federal government in general is not in the business of deciding whether a college can or cannot operate," Contreras said. That responsibility has fallen on the states, he said, and the laws of some state, such as Wyoming and California, are insufficient to bar diploma mills.

Another viewpoint on the use of accreditation, or something close to it, comes from the libertarian Cato Institute, which finds fault with the accreditation process itself and favors a free market or state solutions.

David Salisbury, director of the institute's Center for Educational Freedom, said, "My gut feeling on diploma mills is the whole idea of having to regulate this is the denial of intelligence of consumer and marketplace. If people want to waste their money in buying a diploma from a diploma mill, let them do so."

Salisbury had no kind words for the accreditation process, which he described as a noncompetitive cartel of hidebound, quasi-governmental agencies that effectively suppresses innovations in higher education.

Salisbury suggested that states would be in a better position than the federal government to determine which higher institutions are legitimate.

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