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Pushing Back on 'Granularity'

December 12, 2012

WASHINGTON -- For more than a year, observers here have noted, and often complained, that the federal panel reviewing accrediting agencies (the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity) and the Education Department’s reports on those agencies have become increasingly picky.

On Tuesday, a major regional accreditor raised that critique with the panel itself. Officials of the senior college commission of the Western Association of Colleges and Schools argued that the Education Department’s method of citing every possible flaw in accreditors’ petitions for recognition leads to evaluations that have little to do with whether accreditors can actually ensure quality at the nation’s colleges and universities.

The ensuing back and forth lasted more than an hour and included some concerns about how accreditation would adapt to massive open online courses and other innovations. WASC also criticized how the Education Department and its accreditation advisory committee  It was part of a relatively action-packed day that also included an admission by a programmatic accreditor that it feared politically motivated criticism if it yanked recognition from underperforming programs at minority-serving colleges.

The federal panel, known as NACIQI, advises the U.S. education secretary on accreditation issues. Aside from a report on the future of accreditation approved earlier this year, its main task is to vote to recommend whether or not the Education Department should continue to recognize accrediting agencies -- an important role because only students at colleges or universities accredited by a recognized agency are able to receive federal financial aid.

Beginning in June 2011, accrediting agencies and observers began noting a trend toward increasing “granularity,” complaining that Education Department reports picked out every possible violation of federal standards but drew little distinction between technical problems and serious violations. Since then, accreditation has become something of a two-step process for many agencies: In their first appearance before the panel, they are given 12 months to fix all violations; after the year has passed and the accreditor has reported back, the panel has usually voted to continue recognition for an additional five years without continuing to raise concerns.

At Tuesday’s meeting, leaders of WASC’s Commission on Senior Colleges and Universities -- which accredits only institutions that grant bachelor’s degrees or higher credentials -- argued that this approach misses the forest for the trees. Of the accreditors reviewed by the panel this week, WASC Senior, as the commission is known, had the highest number of issues, 29, to address in order to retain federal recognition.

WASC plans to address all the issues the Education Department raised, said the accreditor’s president, Ralph Wolff, adding that he has no doubt that it will come into compliance within the year.

“The commission believes it is an effective and forward-looking accrediting agency,” he said. “A demonstrable record of effectiveness can readily be overlooked in this very technical interpretation.”

In some cases, he said, the Education Department’s requirements were interpreted too literally. For one institution with sites in multiple states, WASC reviewed all complaints filed within the past year to discern any patterns, only to be told that it should have reviewed all complaints from the past six years -- something he said would be costly and burdensome.

He said that WASC had also worked to create an “adaptive model” that is equally rigorous for different types of universities, accusing the Education Department of focusing on “inputs” (in accreditors’ case, requiring written policies and documentation) to the exclusion of “outputs” (such as whether the policies are effective).

And Wolff warned that in the age of massive open online courses and increasing talk of badges and other alternative credentials, some -- especially in Silicon Valley, where colleges fall under WASC’s purview for accrediting -- are already calling into question the value of accreditation at all.

“The whole meaning of credentials is at stake here if you look to the future,” Wolff said, warning that despite the Education Department’s stated support for innovation in higher education, he saw no focus from the department or the advisory panel on innovative approaches in reviewing or approving accreditors. (A few moments later, Arthur Rothkopf, the panel’s vice chairman, followed up on Wolff's point, asking if WASC was prepared to review transfer-of-credit policies dealing with MOOCs and other growing issues in online higher education.)

A few members of the federal panel echoed Wolff’s critique. They argued that the Education Department’s reports, while thorough, sometimes left them puzzled as to whether accreditors were failing to fulfill a few technicalities, or whether they were doing a bad job over all.

“When I read the various staff reports, all of which are done extremely conscientiously, I can say as a member of NACIQI I often read it all and I have no better sense of whether you are doing a good job or not,” said Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

Earlier in the day, another accreditor also caused a stir on the panel. The executive director of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics, in discussing the challenges the accreditor faced, mentioned that he did not want to continue to accredit poorly performing programs. But he said that a disproportionate number of those programs are at minority-serving institutions, and that he feared concerns about the political ramifications.

“It looks very bad to be taking accreditation away from MSIs,” said Ulric Chung, the accreditor’s executive director. Programs at minority-serving institutions are a tiny fraction of the dietetics and nutrition programs within the accreditor's purview -- Chung estimated about 12 out of more than 500 were at such colleges -- but he estimated that 95 percent of those programs were failing to meet standards.

“We are helping all of our programs,” Chung said. “If a program does not meet our standards, we've determined we have to remove the accreditation because they're not serving the population.”

While some on the federal panel raised concerns about Chung’s comments, saying they were troubled that an accreditor would consider continuing to certify failing programs under any circumstances,  they also thanked him for his efforts to raise standards for all programs. “I appreciate your candor in helping us understand some of these realities and circumstances you can't fully control,” said Jamienne Studley, the panel’s chairwoman.

In the end, NACIQI voted unanimously to continue its decision for a year to allow both WASC and the nutrition and dietetics accreditor to come into compliance. Continued recognition was also granted to five accreditors, including the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools, the American Board of Funeral Service Education, the Distance Education and Training Council, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, and the Midwifery Education Accreditation Council.

 

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