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Firmer Proposals on Accreditation

February 1, 2012

Sustain the link between accreditation and access to federal financial aid.

Set a national minimum standard for states to follow in ensuring consumer protection in higher education.

Consider structuring accreditation so that it is judged based on institution type or mission rather than geography, and so that accreditors can more easily distinguish between colleges of varying quality.

Define a common set of data that the federal government would collect and share with accreditors, both to minimize reporting burden and to assure consistency. The data might include licensure, job placement and completion data -- the latter collected "through a privacy-protected national unit record system."

Those are among the recommendations contained in a second draft of the report that the U.S. Education Department's advisory committee on accreditation is preparing for Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The draft, which was circulated among the panel's members last month (after a public meeting in December) and obtained by Inside Higher Ed, goes significantly further than last fall's first draft in endorsing specific changes to the U.S. system for assuring higher education quality and protecting students and taxpayers. The previous draft primarily listed many possible approaches and generally declined to pick and choose among them.

But the new version still stops well short of prescribing a clear vision for how the complex and multifaceted system should work, and leaves many questions undecided. (The panel plans to publish a later draft to solicit feedback on it; the committee will then consider a subsequent draft at a public meeting before sending the final recommendations on to the education secretary.) 

It answers one of the most fundamental questions unequivocally, though, rejecting arguments (made most strongly by one of the panel's members, Anne Neal) that accreditation should no longer be the main gatekeeper for colleges to gain access to federal financial aid funds.

"Accreditors are the most experienced source of information about academic quality and should continue to establish and assure consistency with academic quality standards in the determination of eligibility," the panel states, noting that 10 of 13 members backed this recommendation in a straw poll. "The responsibility for evaluating how well an institution is accomplishing its educational work can and should rest exclusively with the institutions and/or the accrediting bodies," rather than becoming more directly a government function.

But language elsewhere in the draft report is likely  (not that it takes much) to set off concerns among private college officials, particularly, about a more aggressive federal and state role in judging institutional (and educational) quality. The panel describes the federal government as having an interest not just in judging colleges' "financial stability/compliance" with federal rules and laws but also "quality assurance," including "promoting the improvement of education and the institutions that provide it."

And it likewise cites states' responsibility for determining "educational quality," recommends a "federally convened process" in which state leaders and others would seek to develop a "common understanding" among states about how they should protect consumers, and says states should work together to "ensure consistent and coherent application of critical standards" to ensure that "critical quality assurance/eligibility expectations are met." That consistency is increasingly necessary, the panel writes, in an era when so many institutions provide education across state boundaries.

Accrediting agencies should be more differentiated in their assessments of institutions, the panel states. "That is, the same level of scrutiny and intensity of review is given to accreditors and institutions with longstanding competent performance on quality indicators as is given to fragile, unstable, low-performing, rapidly expanding or changing, or newly approved institutions or programs," the committee writes.

While the panel declines to dictate exactly how this should change, it suggests that the current state of higher education "may call for a system of accreditation that is aligned more closely with mission or sector or other educationally relevant variable, than with geography," and provides more choice to institutions, and that accreditors should be given more latitude "to distinguish among programs or institutions with more varied levels and durations of review, such that the greater review effort is addressed to accreditors and institutions that present greater potential cause for concern and those whose circumstance may call for additional, supplemental, or heightened review."

The report talks at length about the burden imposed on institutions by the varied strands of the quality assurance process, and suggests that collection of data be coordinated to minimize the burden -- but also to increase the meaningfulness of the information collected. While many college officials might applaud the idea of centralizing data collection that is now done by accreditors, states and the federal government, the panel's assertion that the U.S. should collect more data on completion and career-related outcomes (though not specific student learning outcome measures, the document states) is likely to set off alarm bells among some college officials.

And Republicans in Congress -- who stopped a proposal to create a federal database of student-level academic records in 2005 -- don't seem any likelier to support the idea now, despite the committee's tentative endorsement.

 

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