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In a meeting with college presidents and association officials Wednesday morning, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos planned to outline principles for her plan to revamp higher education rules, with a focus on accreditation.

DeVos wants more flexibility for accreditors to approve emerging models, such as distance learning, instead of what she called a current “all or nothing” approach. DeVos also called for clearer delineations between the roles of accreditors, state licensing agencies and the federal government.

The department's priorities are wide-ranging and include issues that haven’t been primarily associated with accreditors, including credit transfer and credential inflation. DeVos wants recommendations on how the department can encourage colleges to accept more transfer credits and confer with employers before approving new graduate programs.

The principles she laid out Wednesday are part of a broad framework that will guide an upcoming rule-making process set to begin in January.

The department described its priorities in two white papers released Wednesday -- on rethinking higher ed generally and on accreditation reform. Recommendations in the brief papers are broad and don’t come with specific policy proposals attached. Department officials said some of the identified issues could be addressed through regulations or changes to current law. Others are a matter of changing the department’s current practices, Diane Auer Jones, principal deputy under secretary of education, said in an interview this week.

“We want to put on the table what we think the challenge is,” she said. “But we are doing negotiated rule making. It isn’t up to us to solve every problem. We would love for people to come to the table with some of their own ideas on how to solve these problems.”

Auer Jones said the department wants to give accreditors the ability to craft standards that match the institutions they accredit. It makes little sense, she said, to apply the same outcomes standards to Johns Hopkins University and a nearby community college.

“We want to focus on standards that make sense based on what the institution does,” she said.

That priority likely will be a matter of enforcement for the department. But others, like credit transfer or credential inflation, will be brought to the negotiating table in the upcoming rule-making process.

Jones said the department doesn’t want to require colleges to accept credits from other institutions. But it may try to encourage accreditors to scrutinize credit transfer policies more closely. She said the department sees issues in particular with regionally accredited colleges rejecting credits from nationally accredited colleges, as well as four-year institutions rejecting credits from community colleges.

The rule-making process will also address how accreditors can approve emerging models such as distance learning or competency-based education. The department says accreditors currently face a catch-22 where they can’t approve those programs without demonstrating to the federal government that they already oversee similar ones.

“You have to give an on-ramp when an accreditor wants to expand its scope,” Auer Jones said.

Reactions to Outline of Plan

The DeVos vision reflects the goals of college lobby groups, accreditors and a bipartisan task force led by Senator Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate's education committee, that combed through higher ed regulation in 2015. DeVos wants to streamline the federal review process for accreditors, make their role as oversight bodies more clear and signal how they can encourage innovation without running afoul of federal standards.

Many involved in those previous efforts were busy Wednesday scrutinizing comments by DeVos and the two briefing documents to figure out what specific policy changes the department would later recommend. But the framework appears to be in line with the objectives of accreditors themselves.

“The proposals, I think, fit with several things a number of accreditors want,” said Judith Eaton, president of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation.

Even so, observers were guessing how the principles described in the two white papers would translate into specific proposals from the department.

“Of course everybody in the accreditation field is poring over them for hints of what the future might hold,” said Leah Matthews, executive director of the Distance Education Accreditation Commission.

And Barbara Gellman-Danley, who chairs the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions, said the devil would be in the details of specific policy changes.

A reform proposal must "make sure accreditors retain the authority necessary to carry out our central responsibilities to protect students and assure institutional quality," said Gellman-Danley, president of the Higher Learning Commission. "Above all, any regulatory changes must benefit our most vital stakeholder -- students -- and the council looks forward to working closely with the department to accomplish that goal."

Roy Swift, executive director of Workcred, said he liked most of the department's recommendations. But he said its intentions for items like “outcomes-based” accreditation needed more definition.

“It’s all over the place as to what that means,” he said via email. “Some process is important, such as involvement of appropriate stakeholders in curriculum development that truly represents the population being served.”

Swift also said innovation should be an expectation in higher education, and that accreditation standards must include language describing how it should be evaluated. Skeptics of the department have said that promoting innovation and flexibility while weakening protections could add risks for students and the federal government.

The danger, said Antoinette Flores, associate director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, is a system that “gives full freedom to institutions and accreditors to pursue their goals with little to no oversight.”

But Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, said it’s unclear how much the department will be able to accomplish through regulation as opposed to changes in the Higher Education Act.

“Whether they can do enough to move the needle significantly is really, I think, an open question,” he said.

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