Last spring, as the U.S. Education Department convened a set of college officials and accreditors to negotiate possible changes in federal rules  governing higher education accreditation, the dominant story line was the government’s aggressive effort to prod accrediting agencies  to force colleges to measure and report more quantitative data about their success in educating students.
Despite the protestations of federal officials, the push was seen by many people as overstepping the department’s authority, and college officials and accreditors were generally united in opposing it -- as were leading members of Congress, who ultimately stepped in and demanded that the department put its efforts on hold  pending passage of legislation to renew the Higher Education Act.
But overshadowed amid the contention wrought by the department’s tactics was the reality that college leaders and accrediting officials did not entirely see eye to eye on the issue. Yes, they shared the perception that the department's proposal would represent unwarranted federal intrusion. But negotiators representing the six regional accrediting agencies (as well as those representing career-related colleges) were far more willing than college leaders were to accept the department’s argument that accreditors should demand evidence from colleges that they are educating students, and should have the authority, ultimately, to judge whether a college’s results are sufficient.
When the Education Department's accreditation negotiations ended in stalemate last June, that rift was papered over -- until last week, when an 11th-hour change in House of Representatives legislation  to extend the Higher Education Act laid bare the division once again.
After the rule making negotiations collapsed, higher education leaders, working with Congressional aides, incorporated language into the Senate Higher Education Act bill  that clearly vested authority for setting goals and measuring success for student learning outcomes in the hands of individual colleges, much to the satisfaction of college and university leaders (and the dismay of Education Department officials ).
When Democrats in the House introduced their own version of the Higher Ed Act bill this month, their own language on the role of accreditors in measuring learning outcome largely mirrored the Senate’s, with the similarity in the language virtually ensuring that that approach would stick when Congress ultimately passed the final legislation.
But late Wednesday evening, six hours into the House Education and Labor Committee’s debate over the Higher Education Act legislation, Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) introduced an amendment to strip the language about learning outcomes from the bill. College lobbyists were caught off-guard by the amendment, which passed by voice vote without opposition, and scrambled to figure out where it had come from. The answer: Accrediting agency officials had initiated it, and had done so without telling officials at the major higher education associations.
“I’m shocked at the stupidity of the accreditors in opening up an issue that had been settled in a positive way,” Becky Timmons, assistant vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education, said angrily Wednesday night. The Association of American Universities sent a letter to its members late last week opposing the change, and the association’s weekly summary of developments explained its rationale this way: “The elimination of this important provision opens the door to alternatives that are likely to be unsatisfactory or harmful to the ability of institutions to continue to set their own standards of student achievement based on their institutional mission.”
In interviews Friday, accrediting agency officials said they believed the Senate language, and the provision originally embraced in the House, went too far in giving individual colleges and universities the right to set their own standards for sufficient performance in educating students, and in restricting the ability of accrediting agencies -- as the supposed assurer of quality in higher education -- to say when a college’s performance fell short.
“The language appeared to us to say that whatever a college says is okay is okay,” said Steven D. Crow, executive director of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. “It appears to make it impossible for us to have a standard where we can ultimately say, ‘The academic performance here is not sufficient.' "
Crow, who was on the negotiating team during the Education Department’s accreditation rule making process last spring, reiterated his view that the department’s proposed approach to measuring learning outcomes -- which he called “extremely obnoxious” -- would have gone too far in substituting the authority of the federal government for that of colleges and universities. But the language etched into the Senate bill (and originally into the House bill), he said, went too far the other way.
“The pendulum swung from the department saying, ‘You’re going to have a standard on student achievement, and this is how it’s going to look,’ to one where the institution sets the standard and it's done in a way that says the accreditor couldn’t say that it wasn’t sufficient,” Crow said. “Our perception is that the language did not give us the ability to weed out poor performers when it comes to learning, and we think our institutions want us to be able to do that.” Crow noted that accrediting groups like his are run by their member colleges and universities, who set the standards for the accrediting associations.
Crow and Elise Scanlon, executive director of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology, said they had tried to engage officials from the nation’s higher education associations in discussions about the problems the accreditors perceived in the Senate language, with the hope of altering it in the House bill. “But essentially the response was, ‘We’re satisfied with it the way it is and don’t want to change it,’" Crow said.
Scanlon said that she and others knew that if the House approved accreditation language similar to the Senate’s, that would close the door to efforts to refine it later in the legislative process, because House and Senate lawmakers negotiating a compromise between two versions of a piece of legislation are generally restricted to considering only those provisions of a bill on which there are disagreements.
So the accreditors approached Representative Andrews about introducing an amendment that would strip the learning outcomes language from the House bill, “to try to preserve the opportunity for the student achievement language to be clarified” through a conference committee later on, Scanlon said.
“The intention was really to open a dialogue among the institutions and the accrediting community, to try to determine where the appropriate balance is in establishing some sort of standard that makes sense,” Scanlon said. The intention, she and others said, is for new, compromise language to be introduced at the time that the full House takes up the Higher Education Act bill, presumably in December.
Lobbyists for higher education associations say that they had been unaware that accreditors were unhappy with the Senate language on student learning outcomes, and that contrary to Crow's assertion, they had not rebuffed efforts to discuss it.
They also expressed skepticism that a "dialogue" like the one Scanlon envisions can produce agreement on an approach that will satisfy all parties, given that months of discussion during the federal rule making negotiations failed to produce such an accord. (Crow, for his part, expresses hope that agreement will be possible now because the parties are "confronted with the urgency of a piece of legislation.")
But more importantly, say college leaders, the accreditors may have done more than initiate a discussion between accrediting officials and college leaders, as they intended. They may also have reopened the door to the Education Department to return to the bargaining table to push its approach to measuring student learning, to which the accrediting agencies themselves objected last spring. "What they did was to reopen the entire topic to anything and everything, including the entry of the department," said Timmons of the American Council on Education.
A Senate aide confirmed that members of Congress have "been having conversations" with representatives of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings about the Higher Education Act language surrounding accreditation and student learning outcomes, and that lawmakers have expressed a willingness to involve the department in discussions about the final shape of that language. This aide disagrees with the accreditors' view that the Senate and original House language would preclude accrediting agencies from setting standards for colleges to meet.
The accreditors "have really opened the barn door wide to the secretary getting another shot at what she wants," the Congressional aide said. "On the other hand, I think Spellings has recognized the perceived heavy-handedness of her previous approach, and has been sending signals that she's willing to engage in a positive dialogue."
An Education Department spokeswoman, Samara Yudof, said department officials "look forward to continuing to work with Congress on accreditation."