ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- After reviewing accrediting agencies using criteria so detailed  that they were frequently described as “granular,” the Education Department's National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity switched to the opposite extreme at its meeting late last week. They offered suggestions for an overhaul of the nation’s accreditation system that dealt exclusively in broad ideas, including moving away from a regional approach to accreditation and ending the agencies' role as gatekeepers of federal student aid.
In December, the Education Department asked the committee, known as NACIQI (pronounced nuh-SEE-kee), to make recommendations for the 2013 renewal and revision of the Higher Education Act. The recommendations will be nonbinding -- they must pass through the Education Department and then Congress before becoming law, a long and uncertain road -- but started from a thought exercise: Members were told to imagine they were starting from scratch in designing the country’s decentralized and sometimes byzantine higher education accreditation system. The committee began its discussion at a meeting in February,  and continued it here late last week.
One thing was clear: If the committee really was able to start from scratch, the system would look a lot different. “No one would design this approach,” said Marshall Hill, executive director of Nebraska’s Coordinating Committee for Postsecondary Education, who contributed to a panel discussion about the respective roles of accreditors and state and federal governments in ensuring quality. Many members seemed to agree.
As it prepares to submit written policy recommendations to Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the end of this year, the committee has stretched beyond its usual focus. NACIQI’s primary role is reviewing accrediting agencies and making recommendations to the Education Department about which ones deserve federal recognition. Since colleges must be accredited by a federally recognized agency for their students to receive Pell Grants, federal student loans and other financial aid, NACIQI has traditionally played an obscure but important role.
Branching out into suggesting legislation , including some provisions unrelated to accreditation, is new ground for the committee. In a wide-ranging discussion about data collection, the role of state and federal governments, and the benefits and drawbacks of regional accreditation, committee members (and, to a lesser extent, the witnesses they invited to speak to them) largely agreed on two broad points.
First, many members urged a move toward a system of accreditation based on the institution’s type or sector rather than geographic location, so that community colleges would no longer judge research universities (or vice versa) in the peer review process that is at the core of the accrediting process. Such a system would allow institutions to more directly compare graduation rates and other outcomes, proponents argued.
“It’s not going to be easy, but I think certainly the research institutions ought to be handled differently from trade schools and differently from community colleges,” said Arthur Rothkopf, the president emeritus of Lafayette College and a member of the accrediting panel.
Chief among the proponents of this line of thinking was Princeton University's president, Shirley Tilghman, who has advocated for a switch to sector-based accreditation. Princeton clashed with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, its regional accreditor, during its last evaluation: although its accreditation was renewed, the accreditor requested a progress letter dealing with student learning outcomes, using criteria that university officials and faculty found to be too narrow. Tilghman described the experience as “sobering.”
“Peer review requires peers,” Tilghman said, arguing that institutions can learn best from those "with the same backgrounds and the same experiences in higher education." As an example of how regional accreditation can lead to strange bedfellows, she cited Princeton’s closest neighbor, Mercer County Community College. “It is a very fine community college. It serves the student population it serves exceedingly well,” she said. “But I have nothing in common with Mercer County Community College.... There is so little that we have to say to each other, other than that we reside within the same county.”
Others on the committee pushed back, asking how sector-based accreditation would break down beyond the most clearcut decisions. While it might be easy to separate community colleges, elite research universities and for-profit institutions, they said, other divisions were less obvious.
“The development for sectors is a little more complicated than we might like,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. "The standards we might use at a place like Lafayette might be different than at a Christian college, where inculcation into values of faith are a central part of the institution’s mission."
Other members and some panelists said that what Tilghman presented as a drawback was actually a benefit: without the work they do through their regional accreditor, they said, would Mercer County Community College and Princeton ever meet, and learn from one another's practices?
“I would be very concerned if we create a tiered system where all the elite institutions compete with the other elite institutions,” said Arthur Keiser, chancellor and founder of the Keiser Collegiate System, a college chain in Florida. His institutions are accredited by the same regional accreditor as Duke University, he added: “I think we all benefit from that.”
Eliminating the Gatekeeping Role
The committee also discussed a second theme that would even more radically reshape accreditation: Separating accreditors’ role in assessing the academic quality of institutions, for self-improvement purposes, from their federally ordained function as the gatekeepers for federal financial aid.
Many committee members agreed to some extent that accreditors were better suited to the first task than to the second, which the government layered onto their responsibilities decades after they began. The fact that the agencies have only one true disciplinary measure, cutting off access to federal financial aid, may be a handicap because it is so drastic, they said.
“I think the accreditation piece can be very good in terms of an academic process of self-improvement; that indeed is where it works very, very well," said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, who is one of the biggest advocates of completely reshaping accreditation . “By putting the enforcement hat onto them, it has made it very difficult for peer review teams to be honest and actually do the kind of robust review of strengths and weaknesses.”
But while many committee members said accreditors should focus more on academic quality and less on federal enforcement, none had easy answers for who or what would take on the enforcement role, when other members pressed for those details.
“If we take the enforcement role out of accreditation, where do we put it?” said Susan Phillips, chairwoman of the subcommittee focusing on legislative recommendations and provost and vice president for academic affairs at State University of New York at Albany.
Neal outlined a system in which institutions would disclose data on graduation rates, student outcomes and other measures, which she said would give consumers enough information to make judgments about institutional quality for themselves, with penalties for institutions that did not comply. Others said they doubted that would be enough.
“l think there's this real lack of clarity from my perspective about what role the federal government would choose to take on,” Cameron Staples, the committee’s chairman and a state legislator from Connecticut, said in summing up the discussion.
Whatever the committee decides, it is a long way from becoming law: Members said they planned to discuss and vote on a draft of their recommendations at a meeting in December. The document would then go to the Education Department and then to Congress -- where, of course, anything can happen.
When asked during the meeting, members had more ideas for improving the system than comments on what it does well. Still, some had words of faint praise.
“The triad does get the job done now,” said William Pepicello, president of the University of Phoenix, referring to the trio of accreditors, state governments and the federal government. “It gets it done unartfully. It's often a labyrinth, and it has some overlapping pieces to it. But eventually it gets done all the things we want to get done."