Drawing A Hard Line

March 28, 2007

U.S. Education Department officials suggested Tuesday that they would insist that new federal rules require accrediting agencies to set minimum standards of performance for the institutions they monitor to meet in terms of proving how well they educate students.

The department’s stance became clear during the second day of a three-day session of a federally appointed panel negotiating possible changes in regulations governing accreditation. For the second day in a row, department officials and the accreditors, state and college officials on the panel formally accomplished very little, as they completed work on just two of the dozen or so issues over which they are negotiating.

But despite that apparent lack of progress, some important things became clear through a process of boundary testing on Tuesday. A group of accrediting agency officials and others drafted an alternative to proposed regulatory language unveiled late last week in which Education Department officials sought to give accreditors three options for measuring institutions’ success in educating students -- two of which would force them to set minimal levels of acceptable performance, which regional accreditors (and many college officials) have traditionally considered it inappropriate for them to do.

Instead of requiring accreditors to alter their own standards for measuring student achievement in ways that would “set explicit federal standards for what counts as quality at institutions,” as Judith S. Eaton of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation argued that the department’s approach would, the non-federal negotiators suggested an alternative in which accreditors would collect information about completion and placement rates and other measures of student success as part of the institutional “self studies” that are at the core of the accreditation system.

The accrediting officials and others who proposed the alternative did so without much enthusiasm, and only after the department’s lead negotiator, Vickie L. Schray, had laid down the law in the day’s first exchange. Steven D. Crow, executive director of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, had opened Tuesday’s proceedings by complaining that department officials had “edited the text” of the Higher Education Act to give themselves the latitude to dictate how accreditors measure colleges’ learning outcomes.

“This is taking what was a government requirement in law that we have a standard that addresses student achievement, and now you’re saying, not only does it have to look this way, but it has to dance this way and act this way,” Crow said. “We’ve essentially lost control of our ability to set standards and our ability to implement those standards. I don’t want to argue here that what you’re after is not appropriate. I’m arguing that how you’re doing it is really threatening to me and my organization.”

Schray held her ground. The problem with the current system, she said, was that the current approach lets every institution measure and report their achievement in educating students in different ways, and the accreditors do not make judgments about whether the level of learning that is occurring is sufficient. The information produced is so diverse as to be “meaningless” to “folks on the outside,” Schray said.

“While we appreciate and value the diversity of the system and the need to be responsive to individual mission,” she said, department officials remain troubled “by the fact that it is difficult to get accreditors around the table to say they know quality when they see it.”

Schray received support in her call for more specific and quantifiable measures of student learning from representatives of national accrediting associations, who have been required for more than a decade to collect such information from the for-profit colleges they oversee.

Roger J. Williams, executive director of the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training, noted that the institutions his group accredits “did not immediately embrace” its federally mandated push to impose minimum standards of learning outcomes, and in fact were “forced kicking and screaming.” But they have improved since they started doing so, he asserted.

He said the work of the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education had made it clear that the accreditation system itself wasn’t doing enough to push institutions to measure and report how successfully they were educating students. “In a more perfect world,” Williams said, “we wouldn’t have to be doing this around the table, much less with the federal government’s intrusion.” But the government’s push is a way to “raise the bar, raise the level of quality of education in this country.”

The department, agreed Elise Scanlon, executive director of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology, “has the right to ask for evidence that accredited institutions are accomplishing what they claim to accomplish.”

As the day wore on, the non-federal negotiators went into a closed-door “caucus” to draft the alternative proposal described above. Crow and the others who crafted it saw as the primary advantage the fact that it would technically stop the department from telling accreditors what standards they should impose on colleges, and avoid the accreditors’ having to set minimum, blanket standards for their institutions -- while still requiring the institutions to report to the agencies the information that the department wants to make its way into the public eye.

For precisely that reason – that accreditors would still, at the federal government’s urging, require institutions to collect and report an array of new information and data about student success in their many programs – college officials were deeply troubled by the accreditors’ alternative, too, which they saw as little different from the government’s original proposal.

“The accreditors see this as less federalizing of their role,” said Susan K. Hattan, a senior consultant and accreditation expert at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “But from an institution’s perspective, this is still an effort by the department to have federal standards for student learning implemented via the accrediting agencies. Whether you do it one way or the other doesn’t really matter – they’re both very disturbing.”

She added: “The department has never before attempted to say that an agency should measure things in a certain way.”

When the accreditors offered their alternative, they pressed Schray for the department’s reaction to it. After expressing the department’s “gratitude and appreciation for your willingness and tenacity in working through this issue,” she essentially told them that what they viewed as the proposal’s main virtue – that it would take the accrediting agencies out of the role of telling institutions whether their student outcomes were sufficient --  was a big problem for the department.

“What appears to be missing” in the alternative proposal, Schray said, is the [accrediting] agency’s responsibility in the review and approval affirmatively of what the institutions are proposing.” Without that, she suggested, the alternative won’t fly.

The accrediting review panel moved on to other issues as the day wound down, including a heated discussion (with no resolution) about a controversial proposal that would require accrediting agencies to bar the colleges they monitor from basing decisions about whether to accept a transfer student’s academic credits on the accreditation status of the “sending” institution.

But the department’s hard line on learning outcomes hung over the proceedings. After the panel formally wrapped up work for the evening, a small subgroup of accrediting and college officials sat around the conference table discussing their options, given that their proposed alternative seemed like a non-starter. The mood was not an upbeat one.

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