Federal Intervention in Higher Education

Kevin T. Bauder

The federal government is changing its policy toward higher education, and the changes could affect every Christian college and seminary in the nation. The net effect of these changes is a significant federal takeover of the educational process. The vehicle through which the changes are being pursued is accreditation, but non-accredited institutions are likely to feel the bite of federal regulation. In order to understand the changes, you have to understand how accreditation works.

Until now, accreditation has been essentially an activity of the private sector. Of course, anyone can establish an accrediting agency, and there are accreditation mills just as there are diploma mills. Consequently, it has been necessary to create an organization to accredit the accreditors.

That organization is the Council on Higher Education in America (CHEA). CHEA was established in the 1990s to fend off a federal takeover of accreditation at that time. It represents the attempt by American institutions of higher education to regulate themselves through a process of peer review. CHEA does, however, get its force from federal involvement. It is the only agency that the United States Department of Education recognizes to accredit the accreditors.

In other words, a school that wants to be accredited works with a regional or national accrediting agency. That agency in turn works with CHEA, and when a school gains accreditation it also becomes a member of CHEA. Consequently, CHEA is the conduit through which the Department of Education recognizes accredited schools. The Department of Education publishes an annual directory that is the Holy Grail of accreditation: if a school is listed there, its accreditation is recognized (in theory) by other institutions.

The cooperative relationship between accreditation and the Department of Education was authorized in the Higher Education Act of 1965, part of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” reforms. The act must be reauthorized periodically, and reauthorization provides the federal government with an opportunity to review and influence the educational process. Reauthorization is generally a stormy time in the relationship between accreditation and the government.

Once the Higher Education Act has been reauthorized, the Department of Education drafts new rules and policies to implement whatever provisions have changed. The last reauthorization occurred in 2008, but its repercussions are only beginning to be felt as the new rules fall into place. The net result is a significant federal takeover of the educational process.

The takeover is driven by two concerns. The first is a public perception that American education is slipping in quality. The second concern is money. The feds pour billions of dollars into higher education, and the government is naturally eager to curtail the waste of federal funds. The federal answer to both problems is identical, namely, increased regulation.

The government now defines what a credit hour is. The government has begun to regulate transfer of credits among institutions. The government is also regulating the burgeoning field of distance education. Finally, the government has begun to regulate the monitoring of student enrollment.

The impact upon higher education is decidedly negative. Educational institutions are supposed to ask what is best for their students. They are now asking what will best please the feds. In order to comply with recent federal regulations, schools must confront a mountain of new paperwork. The byproduct of federal regulation has been—and will be—to drive up costs while distracting institutions from their focus upon education. In accreditation as in many other areas, federal involvement creates far more problems than it solves.

The largest problem, however, is simply the presence of federal intervention in an area that was previously private. In effect, the government is in the process of taking over a huge segment of American society. As this takeover progresses, it will be the federal government that determines who can teach and what will be taught at every college and seminary in America. The federal government will ultimately determine which institutions have the right to grant degrees and which will simply be shut down.

For Christian institutions, the implications of such a takeover are obvious. Christians have had to work doubly hard to gain a foothold in the private accreditation system. Once the feds are in control, accreditation is likely to become the wedge by which the government forces Christian colleges and seminaries to adopt policies that reflect prevailing notions on subjects like evolution and homosexuality. The potential for damage is both real and alarming.

The government is also going after unaccredited institutions. At the moment, the individual states recognize the right of colleges and seminaries to grant degrees. In many states (Minnesota is one of them), religious institutions are completely exempt from the state’s oversight in this area. The Department of Education, however, is using its new leverage to pressure the states to force all degree-granting institutions to gain accreditation. In other words, if the federal government has its way, no unaccredited schools will be allowed to grant degrees.

The hour may already be too late to thwart the federal takeover. The only way that it could be reversed is through a significant public reaction against the increased federal regulation, coupled with a change in those elected officials who want to use the accreditation process as a way of increasing the federal headlock on higher education.

In the meanwhile, Christians need to begin thinking about other models of teaching and learning. Up to now, we have adopted a model borrowed from the medieval universities. We have coupled our educational process with the granting of degrees at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctor’s levels. That is just what we may not be able to do in the future.

If that happens, we may need to rethink the process of ministry preparation. Future pastors and missionaries do need to be taught, but they do not really need degrees. We might well ask, What will ministry preparation look like in a world in which we are no longer permitted to operate colleges and seminaries? Unless something can be done to reverse the federal juggernaut, that day is almost certain to come.

Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis 
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