Cranking Up the Pressure

May 31, 2007

With an open invitation from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to play a bigger role in federal accreditation policy and a new crop of members eager to do so, the Education Department’s advisory committee on accreditation flexed its muscles on the first day of its semi-annual meeting in Washington Wednesday.

The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (known by its acronym, pronounced nuh-SEE-kee), which advises the education secretary on granting (or withholding) federal recognition for individual accrediting agencies, for the first time in collective memory on Wednesday recommended that the department deny recognition to a division of one of the six regional accrediting agencies.

The panel’s decision, which rejected a recommendation by the department’s staff to extend (for 18 months and with significant reservations) recognition of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges’s Commission on Technical and Career Institutions, was one of several points during Wednesday’s meeting when it seemed clear that the advisory panel is taking to heart Spellings’s exhortation that it help propel the department’s efforts to hold accreditors more accountable for quality control in higher education, especially on how much students learn.

That overall push on accreditation has been controversial, most recently drawing a warning to Spellings from Sen. Lamar Alexander, a prominent Republican and himself a former education secretary, that the department should not exceed its authority by moving too aggressively to change the federal government's oversight of accreditation before Congress has enacted legislative changes.

With another federal panel set to meet for the final time tomorrow to consider possible changes to federal regulations governing accreditation -- with Alexander and other members of Congress sure to be watching that process closely -- many accreditors and college officials had suspected that the NACIQI panel might, at the urging of the department's political leaders, lay low at its meeting this week. It had been accused at its last meeting in December of holding accrediting agencies to a tougher standard than before in how they hold colleges accountable for measuring student learning, and some thought the department might not want additional scrutiny for Friday's meeting. At that December meeting, the panel overturned a staff proposal by recommending that the education secretary limit the ability of another accreditor, the American Academy for Liberal Education, to approve new members, which Spellings has since done.

But any expectation that the members of NACIQI would ease up in their push fell by the wayside quickly. The panel gave a rough going-over to a small accrediting agency that oversees funeral service education (yes, there is such a body, so to speak) early in the day, and then after lunch took up the case of the New England Association's Commission on Technical and Career Institutions. That agency has been in a period of transition as it shifted from overseeing all technical education for the region to focusing only on the small number of secondary school programs (involving hundreds or at most 2,000 students at a few dozen institutions) that provide some non-degree postsecondary credentials. It is a tiny agency; for comparison purposes, the New England association's college commission accredits 250 or so institutions that have hundreds of thousands of students.

The department's staff, which makes recommendations to the advisory committee, had cited several shortcomings in the accrediting body's reporting of evidence about its standards, including in its measurement of student learning outcomes. It therefore recommended that the department renew its recognition of the agency (which carries with it the all-important right for students at institutions accredited by the body to receive federal financial aid) for three instead of the normal five years, provided that the New England agency come up with a plan to fix the flaws within a year.

But under tough questioning from two of the panel's newest members, Arthur Keiser, president of the Keiser Collegiate System, and Anne D. Neal, executive director of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the committee increasingly came to the view that officials of the accrediting agency -- which had been before the panel multiple times in the previous few years, trying to explain similar deficiencies -- "haven't demonstrated their capacity to fix" the problems, as George A. Pruitt, president of Thomas Edison State College and the committee's longest-serving member, put it.

A majority of the panel's members voted to recommend that the education secretary deny re-recognition to the agency, which, if she does so, would mean that students at institutions it accredits could no longer receive federal aid within 18 months from that point. That would essentially be the death knell for the agency. Several long-time accreditation experts said they were not aware of another commission of a regional accrediting agency that had been recommended for de-recognition.

While nothing else quite so dramatic occurred during Wednesday's meeting, the overall theme and pattern repeated themselves frequently, in which Neal (who spoke frequently and impressed many observers with her preparation), Keiser and other of the committee's relative new cadre of members drew a harder line and seemed far less inclined than previous incarnations of the panel to be patient with accrediting agencies or to reward them for histories of cooperation.

One particularly striking exchange unfolded in consideration of the recognition of the Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools' Accrediting Commission, whose vice president, Bernard Fryshman, is a highly respected educator and accrediting official and one-time member of the NACIQI panel itself.

The Education Department's staff had cited Fryshman's commission for, among other things, failing to ensure that the schools it oversees "systematically" measure and collect data to show their effectiveness in educating students. Although Fryshman has been consistently and eloquently critical of the department's effort -- prompted by the education secretary's Commission on the Future of Higher Education -- to prod colleges to quantitatively prove their effectiveness in producing student learning, he vowed at Wednesday's meeting that his agency would do whatever necessary to do just as the department asked.

While the department's staff members and several NACIQI members, including Lawrence J. DeNardis, former president of the University of New Haven, seemed inclined to give Fryshman (and his agency) the benefit of the doubt for their long history of good work in accreditation, Neal and Andrea Fischer-Newman, another new member who is a University of Michigan regent and a lobbyist for Northwest Airlines, questioned whether the committee shouldn't be holding Fryshman's organization to the same tougher standard it had held other agencies. Should the department defer recognizing the Talmudic school accreditor until it gets its shortcomings sorted out, they wondered?

Agencies seem to claim not to know what the committee's standards or requirements are, and "I don't understand why, when we're dealing with agencies that have been at this for 30 years," said Fischer-Newman. "Do our regulations change that frequently that they don't know what's expected of them?"

That drew some guffaws from some of the observers in the room, given the prevailing sense among many people in higher education that the NACIQI panel -- at the department's urging -- has changed its expectations for institutions quite a bit in recent months and years, a point subtly acknowledged by DeNardis, one of its members.

Have the regulations changed? he asked. "Obviously not in words they have not. But it's clear that at least during my time, emphasis on certain standards have changed from time to time, and currently there's an emphasis on student achievement." DeNardis encouraged Fryshman, who had previously shied away from "starting a major conversation" about whether the department's course is a wise one, to explain his opposition, as long as doing so would not force Fryshman "down a path here that will make your agency more vulnerable."

Fryshman took the bait, gently, saying he thought the department's insistence that colleges find data-driven ways to measure student learning failed to account for the sorts of "intense master to student involvement" that religious institutions like those he accredits have featured "for 2000 years."

"I know there's a desire for a more numerical approach, a more systematic approach," Fryshman said. "But when you're in accreditation and you're dealing with a school, you have to look at the school holistically, you can't just look at the numbers."

With that, DeNardis proposed that the committee adopt the staff's recommendation that the Talmudic agency be re-recognized for the full five years, with an interim report on its deficiencies by next summer. The motion was approved unanimously, with Fryshman and Neal both having made their stands clear.

The NACIQI meeting continues today, and the accreditation rule making session -- with the eyes of Congress and others watching -- resumes for its final day tomorrow.

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