A Break From Purgatory, Barely

Margaret Spellings gives partial relief to accreditor of liberal arts programs, allowing it to approve new colleges but extending its recognition for 3 (not 5) years, citing lingering concerns.
July 23, 2008

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings on Tuesday took the American Academy for Liberal Education off accreditors' death row, lifting a restriction that effectively prevented it from approving new institutions. But while the secretary also extended the agency's federal recognition by three years, through 2010, she required a series of reports to and appearances before the Education Department's accreditation advisory committee that could keep AALE on its heels.

AALE, as it is known, has been in limbo since April 2007, when Spellings, acting on a recommendation by her National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, barred the accrediting agency's authority, citing what department officials characterized as its failure to set clear standards for measuring student learning outcomes and to adequately collect and review data on how its member colleges measure such learning. Under the freeze, AALE could continue to accredit colleges, but that accreditation would not carry with it, for newly approved institutions, the imprimatur of the federal government, which brings access to federal student aid.

Supporters of the liberal education accreditor, once a darling of conservative commentators on education, argued that it had fallen prey to the department's push to compel accreditors (and by extension the colleges they accredit) to more rigorously assess and measure the learning outcomes of students. They also suggested that AALE was being held to a higher standard than other agencies, pointing out that the accountability system it adopted was more rigorous than most other non-vocational accrediting agencies.

When the agency was set to appear before the accreditation advisory committee last December, the department’s staff members recommended that the advisory panel sustain the freeze on accrediting new members. When the advisory panel made its recommendation in mid-December, after members of Congress had sent clear signals of displeasure with the department’s aggressive push on student learning outcomes, it recommended that Spellings lift the restriction barring the accreditor from examining new colleges, though it also agreed with the staff recommendation that Spellings extend the agency’s recognition for only one year, instead of the standard five.

AALE appealed the committee's recommendation, and in March, Diane Auer Jones, then the assistant secretary for postsecondary education, and Sally L. Wanner, the counsel for the Office for Postsecondary Education, responded to the AALE appeal by recommending that Spellings grant recognition to the accrediting group for the full five years and lift the ban on accrediting new members.

Spellings's four-page letter Tuesday in response to the advisory committee's recommendation and to AALE's appeal "recognizes that AALE has shown progress recently, but it also recognizes that there's a history of some problems" with the agency, David L. Dunn, the education secretary's chief of staff, said in an interview.

The secretary's decision letter concludes that the accrediting agency has met all of the department's criteria for recognizing such agencies, which is why she decided to end the limitation on its ability to approve new colleges. But Spellings said she had "continued concerns stemming from AALE's being cited consistently since 2001 for either not having clear standards with respect to measuring student outcomes or not collecting and reviewing data on how institutions it accredits measures student outcomes."

Citing those concerns, the education secretary opted to extend AALE's recognition not by the one year that the NACIQI panel recommended, or by the five years that AALE and the Office of Postsecondary Education urged, but by three years -- or more precisely, two years and a few months, given that it is retroactive to last December's meeting.

In addition, Spellings said that because of doubts raised in the process about how AALE would implement its new standards for measuring student learning, she would require the agency to submit a progress report by this November, appear before the advisory panel in December, and then submit a formal interim report next June to demonstrate its progress.

Some supporters of AALE questioned whether the reporting and other requirements imposed on the agency would take so much time that its officials would be hard-pressed to focus on rebuilding a membership slimmed by the cloud that has hung over it and getting about the accreditation business again.

Jeff Martineau, the agency's vice president for accreditation, acknowledged that the restrictions would be burdensome. But "we will find a way to do what we need to do," Martineau said, adding that the end of the limitation on its activities gives AALE "new life in some sense." "The schools that are still with us are on board, and we have quite a few applicants for new members."

At least for the near term, AALE's fate is clearer than is the future of some of those charged with judging it. It is not at all certain that the NACIQI panel before which AALE is obliged to appear in December under Spellings's decision will even exist then: The Higher Education Act renewal that Congressional negotiators are drafting might eliminate the panel by that time.

Of course, that's only if the legislation actually passes by then, which, after 10 years, is far from assured.


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