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Heading for Disagreement

April 25, 2007

An Education Department panel negotiating possible changes in federal rules governing accreditation began its third and final meeting in Washington Tuesday, with sharp disagreements over the measurement of student learning outcomes and colleges' policies on transfer of academic credit seeming to greatly diminish the odds of the widespread consensus department officials are insisting on.

The accreditation panel is one of four that the Education Department said last fall that it would establish to consider possible regulatory changes to carry out the Higher Education Reconciliation Act of 2005, which altered the federal loan programs and created two new student grant programs, among other things. Of the three other panels, two of them -- one debating guidelines for the Academic Competitiveness and National Science and Mathematics Access to Retaining Talent Grant Programs, and the other weighing possible restrictions on lender-college relationships and other student loan issues -- ended in recent days without the groups reaching full consensus (defined as agreement by every single negotiator) on a package of changes, an outcome that under federal law allows the Education Department to propose any regulations it chooses.

The accreditation panel is by far the most controversial of the rule making committees, because unlike the others, there have been no recent changes in federal law regarding accreditation, and some college officials have questioned whether the department has the legal grounds to consider some of the changes it is considering -- most of which were prompted by the work of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

Over several months, the negotiators -- a mix of college administrators, accrediting agency officials and others -- have engaged in pointed and at times tense debates about a range of issues, most of which boil down to: how far the federal government should go in demanding that accreditors set minimum standards for the performance of the colleges they oversee, most notably on how much their students learn.

As the department's various proposals have evolved over the weeks and months, they have become slightly less intrusive at each turn. Most recently, the department issued draft regulatory language -- based, its officials repeated again and again, on a proposal that some of the "non-federal" negotiators had suggested -- that would no longer require accrediting agencies to dictate to colleges the levels of performance they must achieve in student learning (for non-vocational programs, at least; for vocational programs, all accreditors would still be required to set such standards, which agencies that accredit for-profit career-related colleges already must).

But because the government would still require accrediting agencies to judge whether the standards that colleges set for themselves and their success in meeting those goals are sufficient -- and because the accreditors would be doing so knowing that the Education Department can (through its process for recognizing accrediting agencies) punish any accreditor who doesn't set the bar high enough to satisfy department officials -- some members of the negotiating panel argued Tuesday that even the less-aggressive changes amount to federal control of accreditation, and ultimately of higher education.

"We are taking a system of quality review driven by cooperation and replacing it with a parent-child relationship," where the parent (the accreditor) is "controlled by the federal government," argued Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which coordinates accreditation nationally and recognizes 60 accrediting agencies. "When the accreditor stipulates the level of the performance indicators and the performance expectations, the institution has lost the opportunity to set its own direction, and that's where the problem is ... We should say yes to accountability and to the goals of accountability, but no to this way."

Vickie L. Schray, the Education Department official who is leading the negotiations on the agency's behalf, said that the department had taken great pains "to not put in language where the accreditors would stipulate" anything. But department officials said it was essential that an institution's own standards for gauging its success in student learning is measured against "something external to the institution to help define that success" and that accreditors ultimately play some role in assuring that their institutions are meeting some minimal level of success.

"We're here to talk about how to improve and clarify existing regulations to assure students and consumers that when an institution or program is accredited it stands for sthing," Schray said. "Is it okay that an accredited institution has an 8 percent graduation rate and is receiving [federal financial aid] funds? If nobody is willing to make that call -- if it's not the federal government's call, not even the accreditor's call, it's only the institution's call -- I think we have a real problem on our hands."

Even as Schray and department officials planned to return to the negotiating table Wednesday with yet another iteration of its proposal on learning outcomes, the rift over its approach seems unlikely to be bridged, as does the wide gulf that exists between representatives of the national accrediting agencies and the regional accreditors over some nonprofit colleges' policies that more or less automatically reject the academic credits of students who transfer from for-profit institutions.

A requirement that accrediting agencies ensure that the institutions they oversee do not discriminate in their transfer policies has been a high priority for for-profit colleges and national accreditors, who say it is a matter of fairness for the institutions and their students. Many nonprofit college leaders, meanwhile, believe the department has no legal authority to regulate in this area, in part because transfer of credit decisions are not part of "admissions" standards, which accreditation does have a say in, but are academic policy decisions made in registrars' offices, over which the department has no authority, they say.

Those disagreements seem poised to undermine the entire negotiation process because of the department's decision, which Schray laid out at Tuesday's meeting, that it will consider the negotiators to have reached "consensus" -- which would bind the department to follow the group's recommendations -- only if there is agreement on the entire package of proposed changes.

In other words, if the negotiators were to reach "tentative agreement" on some or even most of the dozen or so issues before them, but to fall short of the needed unanimity on one or more, department officials would not consider themselves to be formally bound by any of the group's agreed-upon language (though they might still be guided by it in some less-formal way).

The reality that the whole process might end in deadlock and come to naught left some of the college officials who observed Tuesday's proceedings wondering if this was the best way to spend their time, but the negotiators will be back at the table today.

 

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