The U.S. Education Department late Thursday released a set of proposed regulatory changes  that would require accrediting agencies to get much more involved than they historically have in judging whether the colleges they oversee are succeeding in educating their students.
The draft language, which will be considered next week by a federal panel weighing possible changes in federal rules governing higher education accreditation, would give accreditors three options for measuring institutions' success in educating students -- two of which force them to set minimal levels of acceptable performance, which accreditors (and many college officials) have traditionally considered it inappropriate for them to do.
The department's proposals would also require accrediting agencies to bar the colleges they monitor from basing decisions about whether to accept a transfer student's academic credits on the accreditation status of the "sending" institution, and significantly increase the amount and types of information that accrediting groups would have to make public.
At the urging of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education,  and especially its chairman, Charles Miller, department officials have been pushing aggressively to use the accreditation process -- higher education's traditional (and oft-maligned) means of self-regulation -- as a lever to force colleges to measure and report significantly more and better information about how well they are educating their students.
The department has pushed this approach both in the process it uses to recognize  accrediting agencies, and in the regulatory review that it undertook last fall.  How hard the department should push in this direction has been much debated and discussed by college officials and is being closely watched on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have urged the department not to try to bring about through regulation major changes that would be more appropriately achieved through changes in law that would require Congress's approval.
The proposals released Thursday, on the same day that many of the members of the federal negotiating panel were otherwise occupied at the education secretary's higher education summit, are likely to ramp up those concerns, particularly in the area of student learning, where the department proposes two major changes.
One, which aims to measure how well academic programs prepare students for the work force, would require accrediting agencies to establish "minimum quantitative standards for completion rates, job placement rates, and pass rates on licensing and professional certification exams or other measures of occupational or professional competency for prebaccalaureate vocational programs and for baccalaureate and professional degree programs that prepare students for employment in an occupation or profession that requires certification or licensure."
The other, which is much broader, would apply to all agencies and all programs. It would give accrediting groups three choices. An agency could:
- Establish "for all agencies it accredits specific quantitative and qualitative measures of student achievement and an expected level of performance."
- Develop "a set of evaluative rubrics for groups of institutions with similar missions, which includes a variety of quantitative and qualitative measures. The agency then weights the components of the rubric for each institution and specifies an expected level of performance on each component."
- Let each institution it oversees establish "quantitative and qualitative measures for each of the programs it offers, and an expected level of performance, that is satisfactory to the [accrediting] agency." The accrediting group would then presumably need to ensure that the institution is meeting the agency-approved goals it has set.
The department's proposed regulatory language also states that "the institution is required to make available to the public, and to each prospective student, information about its mission and each program's objectives, expected levels of performance on measures of student achievement, and actual performance."
The draft language on transfer of credit will please officials at for-profit and other institutions that are accredited by so-called national rather than regional accrediting agencies, who complain that many institutions have policies on academic transfer that discriminate against students from nationally accredited institutions.
But the idea of dictating colleges' transfer is strongly opposed by most other college officials, including those at community colleges, even though their students' academic credits are also frequently turned away by four-year institutions. Registrars and other say it is inappropriate for the federal government to dictate colleges' admissions policies.