Policy Making by Post-It Notes

February 7, 2011

ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- Usually anyone trying to figure out where a committee or other body might be heading in a wide-ranging review of a complex topic is left to read the tea leaves of the many strands of conversation and stray statements.

The Education Department's advisory committee on higher education accreditation made the job a little easier last week, though, as its members, at the end of a two-day forum, used a series of pink, blue and green sticky notes in which they identified the issues and ideas they plan to explore as their review continues in the coming months.

Cameron Staples, chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity and a Democratic state legislator from Connecticut, advised us tea-leaf readers not to read too much into the early preferences expressed by the panel during the Post-it process, in which they identified the issues they thought needed the most attention. Fewer than half of its 18 members were at the two-day meeting and heard the expansive discussion and the impassioned pleas of the many college officials and others who offered their opinions.

"I urge very significant caution to the weighing of preferences" that emerged from the panel's Post-it exercise on Friday, Staples said. "The final product might look different" by the time the committee considers the next steps it wants to take in June.

College leaders and accrediting agency officials might wish they could hold the panel to the initial iteration of its agenda for the future. The areas of inquiry that gained the most support from the committee's members -- reducing regulatory burden on colleges and accreditors, more clearly defining the varying roles of accreditors, states and the federal government in ensuring colleges' quality, and promulgating better data for consumers and policy makers on colleges' performance -- generally embraced steps the government might take to strengthen the existing peer-review process rather than significantly overhaul or junk it. It mostly included steps that would "do no harm," as Holiday Hart McKiernan, of the Lumina Foundation for Education, put it.

But despite the repeated pleas for restraint from many of those who testified at the two-day hearing, several members of the panel suggested that they believed that that time had passed, given the vast amount of federal student aid money flowing into higher education and accreditation's current role as the primary judge of whether colleges are good enough that their students should have access to it.

"You've been saying you think there should be a limited federal government involvement" in higher education quality control, said Wilfred McClay, SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "I wonder if it is realistic to think that all of that federal financial support can be had without the piper calling the tune. Is it really realistic to say that we don't want federal involvement?"

The people to whom McClay directed his question insisted that they were not saying that the federal government had no right to ask hard questions and to push higher education accreditation to fulfill its adopted role of ensuring colleges' quality -- only that federal officials should be cautious about ramping up the government's own involvement in the quality assurance process. At several points during the two-day meeting, committee members or others suggested that the government should directly take on some of the consumer protection and compliance roles that have been steadily added to the plates of accreditors, often uncomfortably.

"What I was not saying was, don’t do anything," said Peter Ewell, vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and a leading analyst of accreditation. But "there's a difference between prodding and fixing. Nothing fundamental ever changes in higher education without an outside push," he said, and "whatever you can do to scare [higher education leaders] into acting, if you will, is the road to go."

While the prioritization exercise done by members of the Education Department panel emphasized deregulation and clearer demarcation of the roles of government and accreditors, committee members also expressed interest in exploring more-significant changes in how accreditors work.

Several commenters questioned whether it still made sense for the seven regional accrediting agencies to maintain their geographic focus, or whether a system in which accreditors set standards for similar types of colleges, perhaps based on Carnegie classifications, might be more logical. One such argument came during the meeting's public comment period via a letter from Princeton University's president, Shirley M. Tilghman, who suggested that such an approach could make accreditation more meaningful than it is now for well-established institutions that are increasingly questioning the value of the process.

"Freed from having to serve such broad constituencies, these more targeted agencies could then work with research universities and colleges that competitively draw students both nationally and internationally to set threshold standards that are significantly more demanding than apply now within the regionally based agencies, such as high graduation rates, excellent placement records, demonstrated alumni satisfaction over time and outreach to students from diverse backgrounds," Tilghman wrote.

"Institutions that meet these higher threshold standards should be judged to have met the first purpose of accreditation (assurance that they meet agreed-upon threshold standards of quality), so that the time and dollars they devote to the accreditation process can be focused instead on accreditation's second purpose: strengthening the institution's pursuit of its mission through measures that are appropriate to its particular circumstances, while not requiring the institutions to engage in practices that detract from it."

Whatever the committee ultimately does or does not recommend to Education Secretary Arne Duncan in the run-up to renewal of the Higher Education Act in 2013, its members are unlikely to heed the heartfelt plea delivered during the public comment session Friday by Bernard Fryshman, an accrediting official and professor of physics at New York Institute of Technology.

He yearned for the day when accreditors focused less on numerical indicators of quality and more on what happened in campus classrooms, before they were "bullied" by the government into forcing colleges to produce data aimed at measuring the unmeasurable. He and other accreditors "waste" significant amounts of time and energy "gathering numbers" that are "totally useless," but "we do it because the Department of Education told us to do it."

"I urge you to put it on your agenda to look at a complete reorientation and restructuring of government's imposition of student learning outcomes and other proxies for actual education onto accreditation," Fryshman urged.

The committee thanked him politely for his comments and asked for the next speaker.

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