- - Monday, May 8, 2017

Does anyone out there think higher education doesn’t cost enough? Or that there are plenty of ideological points of view for students to choose from?

I didn’t think so. Which is one reason that the Obama administration’s hostility toward for-profit colleges was so unfortunate. Policies that limit the ability for new institutions to enter the higher-education market can only exacerbate its high price and lack of intellectual diversity.

So why isn’t the Trump administration making greater efforts to change this? The Department of Education, after all, recently moved forward with the Obama administration’s decision to terminate recognition for the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS). This was startling news to the 245 colleges that ACICS oversees, most of which are for-profit schools.

Heavy regulations on higher education is bad policy in general, but no one should be singled out. Regulations should at least be sector-neutral in their application. Regulations place an undue burden on for-profit institutions that limit their ability to grow and improve.

With America more than $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, the federal government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers, and driving students toward one type of institution over another. Rather, policy should be geared toward diversifying education choices and allowing students to pursue a wide range of options that put them on a path to reaching their career and life goals.

Critics of the for-profit sector often point to the sector’s relatively low graduation rates and contrast them with those who pursue bachelor’s degrees at four-year institutions. However, a true apples-to-apples comparison would be to look at students who pursue credentials at for-profit institutions versus those who attend community college.

Both types of institutions offer programs that typically run about two years, and both have more analogous student populations — that is, many students work part time or full time, and are pursuing higher education later in life. The Obama administration heavily praised the community college sector, even proposing making these schools “tuition free.”

However, fewer than 20 percent of community college students graduate within 150 percent of the time their program is supposed to take. By contrast, two-year for-profit institutions have an average completion rate of 63 percent.

The Department of Education’s decision to remove recognition for ACICS, alas, isn’t unusual. It’s a continuation of years of targeted public policy that maintains the higher education status quo. This needs to change. With the emergence of new education technology, policymakers should embrace the opportunity that for-profit universities provide: the ability to reach more students through innovative models that bypass the drawn-out and expensive bachelor’s degree option.

Unfortunately, the system that allows the Department of Education to recognize accreditors has become completely ossified. It limits the ability for true innovation to flourish.

“In a country where high school graduates represent drastically different backgrounds, interests, and skill sets, it seems shortsighted to assume that everyone should pursue the same four-year bachelor’s degree no matter what their career and life goals are,” writes education expert Mary Clare Reim.

A better path forward would be to decouple federal financing from accreditation and allow states to opt out of the current accrediting structure. This model, at the crux of Sen. Mike Lee’s and Rep. Ron DeSantis’s Higher Education Reform and Opportunity (HERO) Act, would allow businesses, non-profits and other experts in industry to accredit individual classes and courses of study, creating nimble pathways to careers.

Removing the federal government’s monopoly role in recognizing accreditors also would limit its ability to play favorites with schools, like what is currently happening with ACICS.

As Milton Friedman once said of our education system, “The only solution is to break the monopoly, introduce competition and give the customers alternatives.” If the Trump administration wants to make a real difference in education, it will follow this advice — and pursue meaningful reform.

• Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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