After months of uncertainty, the U.S. Education Department has decided to begin a process next month in which it will explore possible changes in the federal rules that govern the higher education accreditation process, department officials confirmed Wednesday. The decision, which will be formally announced in a Federal Register notice on Friday, offers yet another sign that the department plans to move aggressively, on many fronts, to carry out the recommendations of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education. 
Department officials surprised college leaders in August  by announcing that in addition to holding "negotiated rule making" sessions to draft regulations to carry out legislative changes made to student loan and financial aid programs in the passage of the Higher Education Reconciliation Act last February, they would also consider possible changes in the accreditation system.
At various points in the last few months, department officials have sent conflicting signals  about whether they would proceed on that course, amid doubts from higher education officials about whether such a process is necessary or wise. Some college leaders have questioned the logic of weighing significant changes in federal rules governing accreditation now when Congress could be within a few months of acting on legislation to renew the Higher Education Act that could require another such process at that point. And in a September letter  to Secretary Margaret Spellings, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators warned the department to move cautiously in trying to carry out through regulation commission recommendations that should appropriately be dealt with by the legislative branch.
But in meetings with accreditors in recent days, and in an interview on Tuesday, Vickie L. Schray, a Spellings aide who was deputy director of the secretary's commission, said that department officials had concluded that they should not wait to revisit the rules surrounding accreditation.
Schray said in the interview Tuesday that when federal officials looked at many of the ideas for altering accreditation that were discussed at a department forum in November, "we realized that some of the barriers related to some of the innovations being proposed is the department and how our current regulations are constructed."
Higher education has undergone significant changes since the rules on accreditation were last revised in 1999, and as a result, in their dictates to accrediting groups, department officials have made "a variety of interpretations" of those rules that have confused and at times confounded accreditors. "It has created a mess, if you will, in the review process, and part of the reason we're doing this is to provide greater clarity and consistency," Schray said.
Accreditors and other higher education officials won't contest that last statement: Some of them have been greatly troubled by what they describe as the department's rapidly shifting expectations for them, particularly in its aggressive push, encouraged by the Spellings commission, to compel colleges to produce more and better information about the academic outcomes of their students.
Accrediting association leaders have been particularly upset about the aggressive tack the department has taken  through the process by which it recognizes the right of accreditors to operate, arguing that department officials have essentially used that process (conducted by the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity) to make changes informally, "through the back door," as more than one has described it.
Some accreditors who hold that view said they welcomed the department's plan to include accreditation in the negotiated rule making process, because it would bring the department's efforts into public view. "Yes, this gives the department the chance to make changes, but they're doing it anyway," said one accrediting official, who requested anonymity because of concerns that the department might punish the official's agency. "At least with negotiated rule making, we'll have our turn at bat. They'll have to listen to us, and it exposes what's going on to a little bit of sunshine."
Cynthia Davenport, executive director of the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors, said it would be a "horrible waste of time" to have to go through negotiated rule making on accreditation twice, if Congress were to renew the Higher Education Act in the coming months. But she acknowledged that she and others had complained, in a highly critical letter in December  about the department's efforts to change the rules for accreditors without involving them in the process. "So if we can make s improvements in the prcess," she said, "that would be a good thing, I guess."
Still others said they saw the department's plan to pursue formal rule making as a complement to, not a replacement for, regulation through the accreditation advisory committee. "To me, this is part of a bigger picture, with the department trying to move the [Spellings] commission recommendations on accreditation through a variety of means," said Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, a membership organization that coordinates accreditation nationally and recognizes 60 accrediting agencies. "They'll take whatever paths they can and see what they can accomplish."
Schray said the department's official announcement of the negotiated rule making on Friday would provide some details about the agenda, as well as a list of those asked to participate.