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Pushback Against Perceived Power Grab

Pushback Against Perceived Power Grab
March 27, 2007

College basketball connoisseurs of a certain vintage -- especially fans of the old University of North Carolina teams -- might have appreciated the tactics that some college officials and accreditors engaged in as a federal panel reconvened Monday to negotiate possible changes in U.S. regulations governing accrediting. The Tar Heel squads of the 1960s and '70s, whenever they got a lead late in the game, would spread their players across the offensive end of the floor and essentially play “keep away” from their opponents, wiping time off the clock (this was before the shot clock limited the amount of time a team could hold the ball). The stalling tactic, known as the four corners offense, frustrated the opponents and bored the fans to tears, but it worked.

On Monday, representatives of regional and professional accrediting agencies and some college officials engaged in their own form of the four corners, repeatedly interrupting the negotiating session by calling for closed-door "caucuses" in which they discussed strategies, possible changes in regulatory language, and the like. In the end, little formally got accomplished at the session -- by day's end, the group hadn't even polished off its debate over the written summary of the group's first meeting, in February, to which most of the negotiators objected.

There's one big difference between what the old Tar Heels did and the tactic of the higher education officials: Basketball teams used the four corners when they were winning. The accrediting negotiators were stalling in the hope that they can come up with some kind of strategy to fight off a set of proposals that they argue will dramatically expand the federal government's involvement in their day to day operations.

The U.S. Education Department sent its recommendations for changing federal accrediting rules around to the negotiators late last week, several days past the department's self-imposed deadline for providing the information. Its officials had promised to get the material to negotiators at least seven days before the negotiating panel reconvened Monday -- but it arrived only late Thursday, as many of the negotiators were in Washington for Education Secretary Margaret Spellings's summit on higher education.

(It is a sign of the mistrust that has developed between the department and many college officials that it is widely assumed that department officials withheld the accreditation proposals until the summit was essentially over, because they feared that the aggressive nature of the proposals would probably blow up the surprisingly cooperative spirit of the summit. Vickie L. Schray, the department official who is leading the negotiating session, steadfastly denied that suggestion Monday.)

When the proposed rule making language did appear, though, it contained several provisions that would, if etched into federal regulation, give the Education Department significantly greater authority in monitoring accreditors, and give accrediting agencies much more say over the institutions they accredit.

Among other changes, the department’s proposed regulatory language would:

  • Give accreditors three options for measuring institutions’ success in educating students -- two of which would force them to set minimal levels of acceptable performance, which regional accreditors (and many college officials) have traditionally considered it inappropriate for them to do.
  • Require accrediting agencies to bar the colleges they monitor from basing decisions about whether to accept a transfer student’s academic credits on the accreditation status of the “sending” institution, and significantly increase the amount and types of information that accrediting groups would have to make public.
  • Force accrediting agencies to collect and analyze more regularly than they are required to do now “information on key performance indicators, such as enrollments, financial audits, retention and completion rates, and other measures of student achievement identified by the agency,” and to justify to the education secretary the frequency with which they collect that information.
  • Give the Education Department’s staff significantly more power to monitor accrediting agencies, including the power to “conduct an investigation” into an accrediting agency “at any time, on its own initiative, at the request of the [National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity], or in response to a third party complaint.”  
  • Require accrediting bodies to require the programs, colleges and universities they oversee to “publish information related to the program’s or institution’s effectiveness in fulfilling program objectives and institutional mission, especially indicators of the program’s or institution’s performance regarding student outcomes.” And accreditors themselves, the department adds, must publish information about the standards to which they hold colleges accountable, and that information “must explicitly describe the agency’s expectation of performance in relation to each standard.”

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said that department officials’ proposed policies, taken together, “would enable them to federally regulate academic policy through accreditation.” He added: “This is an unfounded assertion of authority that is breathtaking in its daring, coming, as it does, from an administration that is entirely bereft of credibility on higher education…. The secretary apparently believes that she can unilaterally control accreditation -- and by implication, academic policies of institutions -- both procedurally and substantively.”

Most of the accreditors and other officials who are participating directly in the negotiating session were much more guarded in their comments about their concerns about the department’s proposed language.

That’s partly because some of them -- especially officials from the national accrediting bodies, which monitor for-profit colleges -- have been held for a decade and a half to standards very similar to those the department is now proposing for all agencies and institutions.  

It is also, though, because the purpose of the rule making session is to try to work together – federal and non-federal negotiators alike – to come to agreement, and the participants want to be seen as operating in good faith. The way the process works, if the negotiators don’t reach agreement on regulatory language by the end of three three-day negotiating sessions (today was the first day of the second session – the third and last one is next month), the Education Department can basically make whatever changes in federal rules that it wants -- unless Congress tries to rein the department in, that is.

So college officials and accreditors who oppose the department’s initial language have some hope that they can craft a strategy in which federal officials will either settle for softer or gentler language or will (perhaps pushed by members of Congress, many of whom have expressed discomfort with the department’s aggressive stance on accreditation) abandon some of the approaches that college leaders see as most invasive.

In the meantime, though, they stalled by repeatedly requesting closed-door meetings that excluded the federal negotiators (and the public), resulting in a long day that was as interesting as watching paint dry (not to whine).

The most significant proposals – those that would require the accrediting agencies to set minimum standards for the performance of the colleges they review on student achievement, and demand that accreditors ensure that colleges do not make decisions on credit transfer based on the accrediting status of the student’s original institution – are set to be taken up on Tuesday.

A report on what happens then will appear in this space Wednesday.

 

 

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