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Next Round of Accreditation Agitation

December 14, 2007

The biannual gatherings of the committee that advises the U.S. education secretary on accreditation have not traditionally been must-attend events. And while it'd be a stretch to say that getting a seat at next week’s meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity in Washington will be like scoring a ticket for Hannah Montana's national tour, many people in higher education will be watching anxiously.

The work of the panel, known as NACIQI (pronounced nuh-SEE-kee), has always mattered deeply to the accrediting agencies whose performance the committee is responsible for evaluating, and by extension to the college officials whose programs and institutions the accreditors’ monitor. For them, the usually nuanced changes and shifts in the committee's judgments and criteria used to recognize the agencies -- or not -- had serious implications.

For the vast majority of people in academe, however, was just another federal committee, another acronym in the alphabet soup of higher education.

But interest in the federal panel has grown dramatically of late as Education Secretary Margaret Spellings -- prodded by her Commission on the Future of Higher Education -- has focused on accreditation as a lever to try to instigate change in higher education, and encouraged the advisory committee to turn up the heat on accrediting agencies to be agents of change in the secretary's larger push for college reform.

In its last several meetings, dating to late 2006, the advisory panel has aggressively challenged accreditors to insist -- arguably as never before -- that colleges measure how well their students learn, and threatened to rebuke agencies that are perceived as failing to hold member colleges accountable enough, and to set minimum levels of quality.

At its December 2006 meeting -- after its then-chairwoman described the panel as being “out of the closet in terms of our role in the whole issue of accreditation and quality" and said the "[education] secretary has high expectations for this group going forward” -- the committee recommended that Spellings defer federal recognition of the American Academy for Liberal Education and bar it from accrediting any new institutions. The panel cited the accreditor's perceived failure to define “acceptable levels of institutional success with respect to student achievement,” and to develop a quantifiable rubric for assessing student achievement by institutions. In April, Spellings embraced the committee's recommendation.

Six months later, at a meeting in May, the panel recommended that the department deny recognition to the technical college commission of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, marking the first time in recent memory that panel had taken such a step against a division of one of the six regional accrediting bodies. The accreditor's performance on student learning was again a major factor. And the Education Department staff that makes recommendations to the advisory panel cited an accreditor of rabbinical colleges for, among other things, failing to ensure that the schools it oversees “systematically” measure and collect data to show their effectiveness in educating students, drawing a solemn rebuke from the accrediting body's leader.

College leaders and some accreditors complained that NACIQI was exceeding its authority under existing federal rules and laws governing accreditation -- guidelines that were at the same time being debated by a federal committee negotiating possible changes in rules governing accreditation and by Congress in its consideration of legislation to renew the Higher Education Act. That fear -- combined with concerns that the Education Department was remaking the membership of the advisory panel in unwise ways -- prompted the U.S. Senate to approve legislation that would kill off NACIQI and replace it with a panel whose members would be appointed equally by the Senate, the House and the Education Department. The legislation followed another measure sponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander, himself a previous education secretary, that barred Spellings from unveiling new federal rules to govern accreditation.

Where Things Stand Now

While department officials have never been shy about asserting their belief that accreditors need to do more to hold colleges accountable for student learning and other matters, they have consistently insisted that neither they (in promoting new rules to govern accreditation) nor NACIQI have overstepped their bounds.

But college leaders have speculated that department officials may seek to rein in NACIQI to try to dissuade Congress from proceeding with its plans to junk the advisory panel. Perhaps thinking wishfully, they have read some backtracking into recent words from and actions by department officials.

At a meeting with higher education lobbyists this fall, the new assistant secretary for postsecondary education, Diane Auer Jones, reportedly emphasized "improvements" that the department had planned in NACIQI's operations, as well as "training" that the department was doing for members of the advisory panel before its upcoming meeting. Several accrediting officials have interpreted Jones's words to mean that Spellings and Jones might handcuff NACIQI's members, but Jones suggests otherwise.

In a statement, Jones said the training sessions were "not new" and would "not break any new ground." "The heart of the training will be to review current regulations that guide the accreditation program, as well as to discuss with the Board the protocol and procedures regarding the conduct of the meeting.... Given the recent interest in the accreditation area, the training session is particularly important right now. In particular, we feel it's important to brief members on the outcome of the negotiated rule making process, as well as the various legislative proposals circulating on the Hill."

The recommendations made about accrediting associations by the Education Department's staff in advance of next week's NACIQI meeting have provided additional fodder for tea-leave reading. Whereas many if not most of the staff's reviews of accreditors in May questioned or criticized their rigor in assessing colleges' student learning outcomes, that issue came up in just one of more than a dozen reports this time around.

And on the whole, the staff reports are decidedly tame compared to those of recent meetings: Most of the reviews raise no major issues, only one agency (one that governs midwifery programs) would have its recognition deferred, and even the American Academy for Liberal Education, which got such a rough ride a year ago, is praised for making meaningful progress.

But other aspects of the committee staff's recommendations might mitigate optimism that the federal government is preparing to back off its push to change accreditation. While the report on the liberal education accreditor does call for extending its recognition, it does so with a major restriction put in place a year ago: that the accrediting agency cannot grant approval to any new colleges or programs, essentially freezing its authority and limiting its viability. That perplexed Jeffrey Wallin, executive director of AALE, who said that while he was "happy to see the positive report, and the list of things we've done right, I don't understand what reason or justification there is for recommending the continued limitation on our activities."

Another development that concerns accreditors and higher education officials appears in the staff report for the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. The staff recommends renewing North Central's authority for the full five years, but it cites a series of problems that it wants the commission to deal with, including several related to how it assesses the impact of "substantive change" -- the addition of new campuses, for instance -- at institutions that it has already accredited.

To the dismay of accrediting officials, the department's staff also tells the Higher Learning Commission that anytime its review of a college or university uncovers possible fraud and abuse of federal financial aid laws or rules, it must inform the department -- without alerting the institution in question. "[I]nforming the institution that it has notified the Department provides an opportunity for the destruction of evidence and/or irreparable loss of federal funds before the Department can itself investigate," the staff report says.

Accrediting agencies are, first and foremost, associations of colleges, so the idea that accreditors should report charges of potential wrongdoing without sharing that information with their members -- which the Education Department proposed during the accreditation rule making negotiations last winter -- troubles them.

"The commission is a membership organization that has a long history of openness and transparency not only with its members but also with regulators and with the public," North Central officials said in the response they submitted to the staff report. "Having a provision that requires a secret notification to the Department is at odds with this longstanding approach to doing business. We believe that the Department has appropriate investigatory powers under federal law to conduct a rigorous investigation of any Title IV institution at any time and that simultaneous notification of the institution in no way seriously interferes with or undermines the Department’s ability to conduct that investigation."

Department officials argued during the rule making negotiations last winter that they believed the government had the authority to require accreditors to report information to the government and keep it from their member colleges. But Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation, who was on the rule making negotiating team, said there is "nothing I know of in the law or regulation that would permit" the "snitch" provision, as negotiators dubbed the idea.

"There is cause for real alarm" in requiring accreditors to turn in their partner colleges without informing them, Eaton said. "It goes right to the heart of the accreditor/institution relationship, and undercuts it again," as the department tried to do, she asserted, in pushing accreditors to dictate how colleges measured student success.

Veterans of the accreditation battles warn not to read too much into either the staff's recommendations or the signals sent by department leaders like Jones. After all, the accreditation advisory committee itself has among its members plenty of outspoken people, including some -- true believers like Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a tough critic of the current system of accreditation -- who might be loathe to soften their approach even if encouraged to do so.

The two-day meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity begins Tuesday.

 

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