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Fundamental Differences

December 20, 2007

After an unexpectedly contentious opening session of its biannual meeting in Washington Tuesday, the Education Department's advisory committee on accreditation settled down on Day 2. But a few key flashes of debate laid bare divisions among its members about such fundamental questions as the nature of higher education accreditation and the purpose of the panel, known as the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity. And by suggesting "policy areas" for the committee to discuss at its spring meeting, some panel members virtually ensured that the federal advisory group will remain a battleground over the role and rigor of accreditation.

At the center of the activity on Wednesday, as she was the day before, was Anne D. Neal, one of the newest members of NACIQI (pronounced nuh-SEE-key), which advises the education secretary on accreditation matters and, perhaps most importantly, recommends which accrediting agencies the Education Department should formally recognize. That recognition is important because without it, an accreditor’s stamp of approval of a college does not carry with it the all-important right for the institution’s students to receive federal financial aid.

In her day job, Neal, as president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, has questioned the wisdom of linking accreditation to access to the federal treasury, arguing that regional accreditation, in particular, has done little to ensure the quality of American colleges and their graduates. In some ways that made her an odd selection to join the panel, given that she essentially has advocated blowing up the system in which she was now a central cog. How would that work?

Uncomfortably, it is now safe to say. At the first meeting she attended, last June, Neal, no shrinking violet, asked aggressive yet thoughtful questions about the accrediting agencies that appeared before her. This time around, Neal went on the offensive, especially on Tuesday, when -- at a time when department officials were hoping to dial down the committee's rhetoric to discourage Congress from reining the committee in -- she asked officials from two regional accrediting groups question after question aimed at showing that the agencies are unwilling to require the colleges they monitor to meet minimal standards for student learning.

On Wednesday, with two more regional accreditors appearing before the panel, Neal dove into the same basic line of questioning, asking officials from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities whether the agency's new "alternative," "outcomes-based" model of assessing institutions' quality and success would impose any judgment by the agencies' officials or merely accept "success" as being whatever an individual institution defined it to be. "This would still be the institution outlining its goals and seeing whether it is achieving its goals, right?" Neal asked. "We should not assume that it has reached any level of qualitative objectives set" by the agency. "We should just assume that it has met the level it has set for itself?"

Sandra E. Elman, president of the Northwest commission, answered the question the way accreditors usually do, by noting that every institution is different and that it would be inappropriate to set the same minimum standards for two institutions with different missions and different student bodies. It is essential, she said, that institutions base their own expectations and ways of measuring those results on their own missions.

"But can I assume that my graduate is going to be literate, know how to write, be exposed to math, be taught by senior faculty?" Neal pressed. "What if they decide not to establish those as part of their mission?"

Elman sought to reassure Neal that every college her agency accredits would see producing literate students who know how to write and do math as part of their mission and would hold themselves accountable for doing so, and that the accreditor, through its system of reviewing colleges, would "hold our institutions up to fulfilling their missions."

Neal seemed unpersuaded: "How many schools have you closed down on something other than financial issues?" she asked, implying that regional accreditors were loathe to conclude that institutions are not doing their job at educating students. Elman acknowledged that the two institutions whose accreditation had ended in the last decade had been cited primarily for financial reasons.

But Neal's barrage seemed to incite a defense, not only of the Northwest Commission but of the federal recognition process, from Lawrence J. DeNardis, president emeritus of the University of New Haven and one of the longest-serving members of NACIQI. In recommending that the committee renew the Northwest Commission's recognition for five years, DeNardis, without referring to Neal, said he "sees in Northwest another example of something I have been seeing for several years now: the transformation by yet another regional [agency] of efforts to change and reform in constructive ways the traditional accreditation model."

"For those of us who have labored" in higher education -- seemingly a subtle shot at Neal and some other recent appointees to the accreditation panel who have no campus administrative or faculty experience -- "we know these are not achievable easily or quickly," given how slow higher education is to change, "nor is there one right way," DeNardis said. "These are agencies operating in the independent sector without heavy government prescription, and by peer review. And they are to be honored and encouraged."

Neal took issue with DeNardis's description of the agencies as independent entities, noting the fact that a college must be accredited by a government-recognized agency (or one recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation) to award federal financial aid. "These are gatekeepers of billions of federal dollars," she said. "I would suggest to you that they are in fact agents of the federal government. I would disagree with your characterization."

"I suspected you might," DeNardis said. Then, clearly agitated, the former member of Congress added a poke at Neal: "Having gone through a significant reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, with your husband at my side, I think I do understand what's at stake here. What we are trying to do is to strike a balance." Neal's husband is Rep. Thomas Petri (R-Wisc.), who has proposed legislation in the current Congress that would let colleges opt out of the formal accreditation process by making a slew of additional information about their operations available to the public.

Neal was the lone committee member who voted against renewing the accreditation of the Northwest Commission and the other regional accrediting agency whose status was considered Wednesday, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. That outcome left the clear impression that Neal is a bit of an outlier in believing that the federal recognition process and the regional accrediting system are abject failures, although other members -- including one or two who had left Washington after Tuesday's discussion -- clearly share some of her views.

But if Neal seemed to make relatively little headway at this week's meeting to change the outcome of the advisory committee's deliberations, she took steps to try to ensure that the underlying nature of the process gets a closer look. Invited by the panel's co-chairwoman, Geri H. Malandra, to nominate "policy topics" that the committee might discuss at its spring meeting, Neal suggested that members contemplate whether the current regional setup of the accreditation system makes sense, or whether colleges should have "greater institutional choice of accreditation selection." (She has suggested in other venues that more competition might compel speedier change by accreditors.)

Patrick M. Callan also suggested adding to the policy list the question of whether it set a new precedent Tuesday in requiring the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges to inform the Education Department if it suspected financial aid fraud by one of its member colleges, without notifying the college itself -- a policy that deeply troubled some college and accrediting officials.

With those two issues, said Malandra, "we've got the beginning of a very good policy agenda" for the next meeting.

In an interview after the meeting, Neal implied that she might seek to broaden the agenda further. "I'm going to keep asking questions, and trying to have a debate," she said. "I hope it's a valuable service."

 

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