WASHINGTON -- Education Secretary Lamar Alexander suggested yesterday that it may be time to do away with the requirement that colleges and universities be accredited to receive federal financial aid for students.
The trigger for Mr. Alexander's suggestion was his opposition to a regional accrediting agency's use of a "diversity standard" to judge schools. The standard requires an ethnic, cultural, racial and gender mix of faculty, students, governing boards and curriculum.
Mr. Alexander said the standard was inappropriate, and he criticized the accrediting agency, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, for using it to sanction Baruch College in New York and Westminster Theological Seminary near Philadelphia.
Currently, in order for their students to qualify for federal loans and other financial aid, colleges and universities must be accredited by Middle States or one of the other five private regional agencies that pass judgment on the quality of a school's education programs. Six million students, half of those enrolled, get federal loans or grants.
But Mr. Alexander told an Education Department advisory committee yesterday that it might be better to separate financial aid from accreditation. Schools could still be accredited voluntarily, but the accrediting agencies would no longer have the power of the purse.
Middle States accredits 509 post-secondary schools in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Middle States spokesman Steven Alschuler said that all those schools had endorsed the diversity standard and that it was incorrect to charge Middle States with dictating to them.
However, Mr. Alexander accused Middle States of intimidating schools and imposing its own definition of diversity.
Accrediting agencies, he argued, are supposed to judge the quality of schools and point out problems. "But the existence of such a powerful relationship between federal financial aid and accreditation has distorted this picture," he said.
Mr. Alexander asked the National Advisory Committee on Accreditation and Institutional Eligibility to study the accreditation issue and make recommendations to him.