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March 6, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Even at their most intense, the 2007 negotiations over proposed federal regulations governing accreditation lacked the drama of an Academy Award-winning movie or a high-stakes sporting event. Nor would it be accurate to say that accreditation topics, during the last years of the Bush administration, were on the tip of every tongue in higher education.

But there is no disputing the fact that issues surrounding accreditation -- higher education's system of peer-reviewed quality assurance and institutional self-improvement, which normally operates in relative obscurity -- got white hot (at least in the normally tame context of higher education policy making) once the U.S. Education Department of then-Secretary Margaret Spellings decided to try to use accrediting agencies and the government's process for recognizing them to compel broader change within higher education.

Never was that more clear than during a round of "negotiated rulemaking" in 2007, when department officials, prodded by the report of Spellings' Commission on the Future of Higher Education, sought to require accrediting agencies to more aggressively monitor how the colleges they oversee measure the learning outcomes of their students, among other changes. Such changes were necessary, department officials argued, to satisfy the public’s need for a better and clearer sense of how effective higher education is.

The department's approach brought an outcry from colleges and accreditors alike; they accused the department of trying to fundamentally alter the relationship between the federal government and accreditors and, importantly, between accreditors and colleges, with the government essentially seeking to set explicit federal standards for what counts as quality at institutions. This, critics argued, threatened an unprecedented level of federal intrusion not just into the traditional role of accreditation as one of self-governance aimed at institutional improvement, but ultimately into institutional academic policy making, which raised the issue to a significantly higher level of importance than accreditation matters typically hold for many college professors and administrators.

The tension between federal officials and some leaders in higher education, particularly at traditional colleges and universities, intensified to the point that, at one particularly memorable session of the federal negotiating committee in April 2007, the lead Education Department negotiator was accused of making an in appropriate late-night telephone call to try to encourage the panel's most vocal dissenter to resign from it. The federal official denied that that was her intent, but the brouhaha reflected the poisoned atmosphere of the deliberations.

The perceived overstepping by the Education Department led Congress to step in to block the education secretary from promulgating rules on accreditation, and in renewing the Higher Education Act last summer, lawmakers barred the Education Department from issuing regulations going forward that are designed to ensure that colleges are measuring student learning outcomes.

To respond to perceptions that Spellings had manipulated the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, the federal panel that advises the education secretary on accreditation issues, the Higher Education Opportunity Act also scuttled the committee and reconfigured it so its members are appointed by both houses of Congress as well as the secretary.

A Decidedly Different Tone

Against that backdrop, flash forward to this week, when a new committee began its work to recommend how the Education Department should carry out the changes the Higher Education Act renewal made in federal law governing accreditation.

As the panel met for a second day at an Education Department office building here on Thursday, there was no shortage of issues on its agenda: how accrediting agencies that assess the distance education programs of colleges show that they address the quality of such programs; how closely accreditors must monitor institutions that are growing rapidly; and how the process should change for institutions to appeal decisions made by accrediting agencies.

Those are important issues for accreditors and, to some degree, for the colleges who work with accreditors, and for officials closely involved in the inner workings of accreditation, like the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, the recommendations made by the panel in the coming weeks will have significant implications. The members of the panel -- college administrators and lobbyists, state higher education executives, and accreditors -- undertook their work earnestly Thursday, debating fine points, for example, about the difference between having a plan or an agreement to "teach out" (or shut down) a campus when the institution gets in serious trouble. It was not scintillating.

But with Congress having limited the scope of the government's activities on accreditation, and the Obama administration, at least for now, focusing its attention elsewhere, federal policy making regarding accreditation is likely to be of relatively minimal interest on campuses in the short term.

Whether that's a good or bad thing is likely to be in the eye of the beholder. Critics of accreditation have long argued that it is ineffective and greatly in need of change, and many of them believed that the scrutiny from Spellings, even if misdirected at times, served to prod the agencies to change. And even defenders of accreditation, like the man who came to the rescue against Spellings in 2007, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, have warned higher education to use the respite not to relax, but to reform.

 

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