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A Little Help From Its Friends?

February 28, 2008

In the year and a half since the report of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, the U.S. Education Department has invested significant time and energy on pressuring accrediting agencies to prod colleges to more effectively measure and more transparently report the academic outcomes of their students. In many ways, the accreditation war has been at the center of the department's effort to carry out the commission's work.

Which has made it all the more frustrating to Secretary Margaret Spellings and her aides that Congress is poised to shut them down. Bills that both the House and Senate have passed to renew the Higher Education Act would bar the Education Department from promulgating federal rules to guide accrediting agencies on what and how they should assess colleges' efforts to measure student learning. The measures would also make clear that colleges, rather than accreditors, have primary responsibility for setting standards for student learning.

College leaders, who last spring fought tooth and nail against the department's efforts to impose a set of new regulations governing accreditation, lobbied Congress hard to limit the department's work on accreditation. But department officials strenuously oppose the approach lawmakers have taken in the Higher Education Act legislation and have expressed their objections in many venues: interviews with reporters, White House letters outlining their problems with the legislation, and, most recently, a harshly worded op-ed in a Washington political newspaper in which Spellings lambasted for having been "persuaded to block the U.S. Department of Education from overseeing the quality of institutions of higher education by special interest forces determined to keep the accreditation process insular, clubby and accountable to no one but themselves."

"While business leaders embrace the future, Congress is vigorously defending old structures and outdated practices in higher education at the behest of entrenched stakeholders who advocate the status quo," Spellings wrote in the Politico.

Department officials have tried, so far unsuccessfully, to persuade leading members of Congress to drop or soften their prohibition. As House and Senate lawmakers and staff begin work on a compromise version of the Higher Education Act legislation, they may get a little help from a friends -- former members of the secretary's higher education commission.

This month, Sara Martinez Tucker and Diane Auer Jones, respectively the department's under secretary and assistant secretary for postsecondary education, held a conference call for former members of the Spellings Commission to, as a spokeswoman characterized it, update them on the department's efforts to carry out the panel's recommendations. The spokeswoman said that the department has done so occasionally, although she could not say when or how often.

By all accounts, department officials -- who like all federal officials are barred contacting or encouraging others to lobby Congress -- did not in any way encourage the participating members of the Spellings panel to urge lawmakers to reconsider their approach to the accreditation issue. According to several participants on the call, Tucker and Jones updated the members on a wide range of recent administration and Congressional initiatives, including the renewal of the Higher Education Act, and they did make clear that they were unhappy about the outcome of the accreditation issue.

"Sara said something like, 'We've been beaten up on this accreditation issue,' and she may have said that the department had been 'emasculated' or something to that effect," said Richard K. Vedder, a commission member who is an economics professor at Ohio University.

Vedder and Charles Miller, who chaired the Spellings panel, insisted that department officials "did not in any form or fashion ask us" to advocate on the agency's behalf, as Miller put it. But someone -- Miller, Vedder and Arthur J. Rothkopf, another former commission member, all said it "may have been" them -- asked Tucker whether there was anything the panel's members might do.

"I may have initiated it," said Rothkopf, a former Lafayette College president and now senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Some of us wondered, If we don’t like what the Congress is doing, maybe those of us who are commissioners could say, 'We think this is going in the wrong direction.' "

Vedder, who like Rothkopf describes himself as generally sympathetic to the department's position on accreditation, said that Tucker responded along the lines of: "We are constrained by the law, we cannot lobby Congress. but you people can do whatever you want."

And they just may, says Rothkopf, who notes that he is speaking as an individual capacity and not for the Chamber of Commerce. "I think that most commission members felt that the accreditation process was a way to get more outcomes out there, to give students and parents and the public more information. Congress's approach would seem to cut the accreditors loose and cut the department loose. What Congress has done here runs counter to our recommendations and will make it harder to achieve the results we would like to achieve. It's a possibility that some members of the commission will express their views."

Some commission members on the call said they did not believe they were not familiar enough with the department's conflict with Congress over accreditation to know whether they should weigh in, and asked for more information from department officials about the issue. The followup e-mail from Vickie L. Schray, the department's point person on accreditation, contained a series of documents -- all public, she noted -- about the accreditation disagreement.

That e-mail, and the fact that department officials had chosen to hold a rare conference call with former commissioners at the precise moment when the department might have its last chance to influence Congress's actions on accreditation, prompted some college officials to question whether Spellings and Tucker had held the call hoping to spur just such an intervention. In an e-mail sent after a reporter inquired about the call and its purposes, another department official wrote to reassure the commissioners that "the Department has conversations with outside stakeholders regularly and the call/briefing many of you participated in was entirely appropriate and not subject to the open meetings requirements that we all operated under when the Commission was active."

Miller, the former commission chair, dismisses such talk as conspiracy theorizing. He acknowledges that the Congressional restrictions on accreditation "does in the short run cause a problem" for the administration's efforts to promote more transparency and accountability in higher education, and "maybe the legislation will slow down what she was going to do."

But "I don't think she could have done a lot more in this year" anyway, Miller said. The bigger deal is that it "potentially impedes a future secretary," he said. "If I were talking to Senator [Edward M.] Kennedy, I would ask him, if there's a Democratic president, why would you want to have in place and assure the continuation of a fluffy system [of higher education accreditation] with no oversight of how we measure how colleges are doing?

"In the long term, this is not going to be good for the institutions or the accreditors," he added. "This is the same kind of behavior that all dying industries engage in when they feel pressure. They run to Congress, they lobby special interests."

Congressional aides said that despite the administration's unhappiness and any potential last-minute lobbying by Spellings Commission members or anyone else, the language on accreditation is likely to be sustained in whatever compromise version of the legislation emerges within the next few weeks from the House-Senate conference committee. (Among other things, the legislation would also essentially gut and revamp the federal committee that advises the education secretary on accreditation, which has been another point of attack in the department's efforts to compel change in the behavior of accrediting agencies and colleges.)

"The consensus seems to be that it is appropriate and necessary for accreditors to look at student learning, but not appropriate for Washington tell accreditors how to do that," said one education committee staff member. "It's not appropriate for Congress and then the department to say, Here's how you're going to do it."

Colleges should not think, though, that they've been given a permanent injunction from Congressional or Education Department scrutiny of their efforts to measure student learning and outcomes effectively, the aide warned. "We've bought them some time to learn better how to communicate and come to some consensus about how to do this, and how to help us figure out how to do it more appropriately."

 

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