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For months, college leaders and Education Department officials have been sparring over whether and how the federal government should change its rules governing higher education accreditation. The core issue: to what extent the department should demand that accrediting agencies, rather than individual colleges themselves, set minimum levels of acceptable performance by institutions on measures of how much their students learn.

Department leaders have pushed possible rules that would have accreditors set "bright line" minimum standards for institutions to meet. College administrators, and many accrediting officials, have argued that having the government require accreditors to do so would essentially set explicit federal standards for what counts as quality at institutions, representing an unprecedented level of federal intrusion in academic policy making and altering the traditional role of accreditation as one of self-governance aimed at institutional improvement.

As a federally appointed committee negotiating possible rules changes prepares to meet next week (April 24-26) to finalize its recommendations, the Education Department has distributed a new set of draft regulatory proposals that would, in a few ways, soften the department's stance. Most notably, institutions and programs themselves, rather than accrediting agencies, would be required to set their own "expected levels of performance" and demonstrate that performance using "quantitative and qualitative measures that are externally validated, as appropriate."

But at their core, the regulations would seem to have largely the same end result: Because the standards would require accrediting agencies to judge "the appropriateness of the level of performance established by the institution or program" and whether the institution has shown evidence of "acceptable performance," accreditors would still be telling institutions whether they are performing adequately.

And because, under the draft regulatory language, the federal government would evaluate accreditors based on their "judgments" of the institutions' standards, the federal government would still be dictating definitions of "quality" to American colleges, if slightly less directly, critics say.

"At the end of the day, this would be federalizing accreditation," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, higher education's main lobbying group. "It would represent a fundamental change in the relationship between accreditors and schools, and therefore between the Department of Education and schools. "

The Context

Accreditation has become the major battleground, at least so far, in the Education Department's efforts to carry out the recommendations of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which declared (to oversimplify) that colleges and universities needed to do a better job educating a greater number of Americans in a more cost effective way, and to do everything they do more transparently. Leaders of the department have zeroed in on accreditation as a central lever for achieving the commission's aims, because the Education Department has regulatory authority over accreditors (through its process of recognizing accreditors) and because the agencies, in turn, can influence virtually every college and program in the country. The department has especially focused on getting accreditors to set clear standards on student learning outcomes, to insist that they "say that they know quality when they see it,” as Vickie L. Schray, a department official, said last month.

College officials from the start have questioned whether the department has the legal authority (without first gaining the approval of Congress) to consider major changes in how accreditors operate. But department officials, confident in their authority, have forged ahead, holding a "negotiated rule making" process in which it appointed a panel of accreditors, college officials and others to consider changes in the rules governing accreditation. The way the federal rule making process works, if negotiators don’t reach agreement on regulatory language by the end of their negotiating sessions, the Education Department can essentially make whatever changes in federal rules that it wants -- unless Congress objects.

In a series of meetings that began in February, and are currently scheduled to culminate next week, department officials have clashed with some college officials and accreditors on the panel, most notably over the student learning outcomes issue. (For background, see articles here and here .)

In the latest iteration of the department's proposals, which were distributed to members of the negotiating panel late Tuesday, its officials dropped a plan -- objected to by most of the non-federal negotiators -- that would have given accreditors three options for measuring institutions’ success in educating students in all but non-vocational programs (there would be different standards for vocational programs, described below). Two of the three options would have forced them to set minimal levels of acceptable performance, which regional accreditors (and many college officials) have traditionally considered it inappropriate for them to do.

The latest draft regulatory language would instead (1) require "the institution or program to specify its educational objectives;" (2) insist that the level of performance the institution sets to meet those goals is "based in part on external criteria;" (3) require the college or program to "demonstrate its performance against those expected levels of performance using quantitative and qualitative measures that are externally validated, as appropriate;" and (4) demand that accreditors engage in "review and judgments regarding the appropriateness of the level of performance established by the institution or program, and evidence of acceptable performance."

For "vocational programs and programs leading to professional licensure or certification," the department proposes that accreditors would be required to set "expected levels of performance" for individual institutions on such things as completion rates, job placement rates, licensing exam passage rates." Exactly how broadly "vocational" would be defined is unclear.

The new regulatory language released by the department this week would also make a change in the other most controversial aspect of its agenda: accreditors' and colleges' policies on the transfer of academic credit. Officials of many for-profit and other nationally accredited colleges have complained that the academic credits of their students are routinely turned away by regionally accredited colleges in the admissions process, based solely on the fact that they came from nationally accredited colleges. This issue deeply divides nonprofit and for-profit colleges, and the latter have pushed hard for a change in federal policy.

The new proposals maintain a plan to require accrediting agencies to have policies stating that the colleges they monitor cannot base decisions about whether to accept a transferring student’s credits on the accreditation status of the “sending” institution, and to require that institutions inform prospective students about their transfer policies. But the department's new proposal would eliminate the previous draft's requirement that an accrediting agency must "ensure" that a college's decisions on credit transfer are not made based on accreditation status. Accrediting officials had complained that that requirement would force them to become "cops" auditing colleges' transfer policies, and department officials say the change would eliminate that problem.

But several college and accrediting officials interviewed Tuesday said the department's proposed changes on that and other fronts do not fundamentally alter the fact that the department is proposing a radical transformation of accreditation, especially because the regulatory language would also force accrediting agencies to collect and analyze more regularly than they do now information on key performance indicators, and give Education Department officials and the department committee that recognizes accreditors more authority to review whether accreditors are upholding their standards.

"It still includes bright lines, it still puts agencies in control of setting the standards for the institution, it still deals with transfer of credit, which we don't think they have the authority to deal with," said Hartle of the American Council on Education. And on student learning outcomes, "if an accreditor doesn't set the bar high enough to suit the department, the department punishes the accreditor, which obviously forces the accreditor to set the bar at a level the department will approve.

"In a number of areas, it will be extraordinarily problematic if this is indeed the regulations they end up proposing."

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