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Scrutiny for an Accreditor

December 18, 2009

And people thought the Bush administration was tough on accreditors.

Fresh off reviews of the policies of two other regional accrediting groups, the Education Department's inspector general issued a stinging rebuke Thursday of the country's largest regional accreditor and urged department officials to consider terminating the agency's authority.

The inspector general essentially accused the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools of shirking its federal gate keeping duties because it granted accreditation to a for-profit university despite a single flaw that the inspector general deemed to be serious.

The agency's action stunned many higher education leaders, who characterized it as a misstep of dramatic proportions. "We believe that the OIG's recommendation is an unwarranted overreaction," Sylvia Manning, president of the Higher Learning Commission, said in a news release. "To make a sweeping indictment of the HLC's capacity to judge quality based on a single case or even a small group of cases is wrongheaded and overreaching."

"It's like saying, there's a problem in the horn section of the New York Philharmonic, and we want you to shut down the whole orchestra as a result," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education.

Added Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and head of the Council of Regional Accreditation Commissions: "This is certainly of concern, because they appear to have put themselves in the place of the evaluators, and made a recommendation that's fairly radical based on one instance at one institution."

The Education Department under the previous secretary, Margaret Spellings, was highly critical of accreditation, and it undertook several efforts -- both to change federal rules governing the system of institutional peer review and to toughen its oversight of accreditors -- that ultimately ran into a brick wall on Capitol Hill.

But the Obama administration, in the presence of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, has shown no signs of backing off. While last winter's negotiations over new rules governing accreditation ended in far more accord than did the 2007 discussion that blew up in conflict, the end result left some accreditation experts believing that the federal government was continuing to expand its reach and authority into accreditation matters.

The inspector general, which investigates potential misuse of Education Department funds and operates independently of the agency's political leaders and policy makers, began its own review of how three major regional accrediting groups define "credit hours" as they judge the academic quality and rigor of the institutions they accredit. In recent weeks, the IG's office issued audits that raised varying levels of concern about the policies at the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

In its examination of the policies at the Higher Learning Commission, though, the inspector general came across what the unusual "alert memorandum" it issued Thursday calls a "serious issue" requiring the "immediate attention" of department officials. The IG took issue with the Higher Learning Commission's decision to grant full accreditation last summer to American InterContinental University (part of Career Education Corp.) "with no limitations on the programs it offered at the time of initial accreditation," despite finding "issues related to AIU's assignment of credit hours to certain undergraduate and graduate programs."

"HLC's accreditation of AIU calls into question whether it is a reliable authority regarding the quality of education or training provided by the institution. Since HLC determined that the practices at AIU meet its standards for quality, without limitation, the Department should be concerned about the quality of education or training at other institutions accredited by HLC," the IG's memo said.

It recommended that the department's Office of Postsecondary Education review the accreditor's actions for possible violations and, if it finds them, act to "limit, suspend or terminate HLC's recognition by the secretary" -- the harshest possible penalty available to the department.

Such action, if taken, could impair the ability of the many hundreds of colleges that the commission accredits to award federal financial aid.

The Accreditor's View

Exactly what issues that the Higher Learning Commission found (and that the inspector general accuses it of underemphasizing) is impossible to tell from the heavily redacted eight-page memo that the inspector general published, about half of which is blacked out. According to Manning, the accreditor's president, though, "what the HLC found was a concern that a disproportionate amount of credit was being awarded for certain courses," notably those that involve significant work outside the classroom.

That potential problem was "egregious," Manning acknowledged -- while also pointing out that the Higher Learning Commission did take actions against American InterContinental, as the inspector general quietly notes in a footnote. "HLC did require that a focused visit on the issue of credit equivalence at AIU be scheduled for the academic year 2010-11. HLC has also required AIU to obtain prior approval before initiating any new degree programs, any new degree sites, or any new distance degree programs," the footnote said. (AIU had previously been accredited by the Southern association, and while the university had had its troubles with that accreditor, it was in good standing at the point in 2007 when it sought approval from HLC.)

With those limitations in place, Higher Learning Commission officials made the considered judgment that the single flaw, significant as it was, was not enough to warrant withholding overall accreditation from AIU, Manning said. "We said, 'You need to fix this, but we'll still accredit you.' "

That decision, Manning said, was an "academic judgment," and what so perturbs her, and concerns other accreditors, is that the inspector general's office is, Manning said, substituting its own judgment in place of the accreditor's.

"They're saying, 'You thought it was okay to accredit them, and we don't,' " Manning said.

Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which represents colleges on accreditation issues, agreed. "Here you have a judgment by an accrediting commission that there is a problem, and an action taken such that the institution is to correct the problem. On that basis, why the alert?"

Eaton characterized the inspector general's memo as part of a worrisome trend -- beginning with the Spellings Commission but showing no signs of abating -- of increased federal involvement in matters to which the government has traditionally granted more latitude. The regulatory language approved by the federal negotiating team last winter "created a situation, we thought, where the department could go into an accreditor at any time and raise any number of issues," Eaton said.

"Of course there has to be accountability, but we were worried about the balance" of authority. "We thought it provided a platform for ongoing scrutiny of the actions of an accrediting organization" -- concerns that the inspector general's actions against the Higher Learning Commission reinforce, she said.

An Education Department spokeswoman said that, as is typically the case, the inspector general's office would have no further comment on its alert. The spokeswoman distributed some information about the situation noting that the education secretary cannot take any action against the commission until her accreditation advisory committee -- which was disbanded by Congress in 2008 and has not yet been fully reconstituted -- has a chance to review the situation.

Until then, the department points out, "the more than one thousand colleges and universities accredited by HLC are not in any immediate danger of losing federal aid eligibility as a result of the OIG findings regarding the agency."

Oh, one other thing, the department adds: "When an accrediting agency loses federal recognition, institutions have at least 18 months to pursue accreditation by a different agency."

 

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