WASHINGTON -- These have not been times of peace, love and understanding between the federal government and higher education accreditors. For several years now, spanning two presidential administrations, the agencies charged with assuring that colleges meet an acceptable level of quality have felt buffeted by shifting, escalating and, in their view, sometimes inappropriate demands from federal policy makers.
The conflict -- which in 2007 led Congress to block the Education Department  from issuing accreditation regulations regarding student learning and blew up the department's process for assessing the accreditors themselves -- has cranked suspicion levels sky high, with accrediting officials on the lookout for signs of further encroachment into areas that have traditionally been off-limits for the government.
It probably isn't surprising, then, that in this atmosphere of mistrust, the Education Department's publication of a "guide" meant to be helpful to accreditors has instead been interpreted by some accrediting officials as yet another assault on them.
At a series of meetings this month, the last of which is today, department officials have gotten an earful from accreditors complaining that the 76-page draft "Guide to the Accrediting Agency Recognition Process"  that the department published last month was too prescriptive and, in some places, seemed to impose specific requirements on accreditors that go beyond current federal law and regulation. Some accrediting officials said they feared that the department were issuing the guidelines as a backdoor way to avoid Congressional limitations on the government's ability to regulate accreditors.
"When I opened up the document, the tone of it implied to me that they were looking to regulate via sub-regulatory guidance, in some particularly important areas," said Mary Jane Harris, director of the department of accreditation at the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education.
Department officials largely quieted her concerns at a meeting here last Tuesday, Harris said, by saying that "they were open to the concerns that we had expressed.… I left feeling that that wasn't the intent."
Kay Gilcher, a senior policy analyst at the department who helped negotiate a set of rules changes  governing accreditation last year, said that department officials had been taken by surprise by the "level of anxiety" they confronted at last week's meetings with accreditors. "There was definitely a sense that we are going too far in some of the things that we have put in the draft guide," Gilcher said. "We hadn't understood that it would be taken that way."
Gilcher said that the guide was designed to update accreditation handbooks that the department produced in 2000 and 2005, and to go into more detail about how the department reviews accrediting agencies. There were several reasons for the expanded guide, she said.
First, colleges and accreditors had often complained in the past that different reviewers in the department interpreted federal laws and rules differently, and the guide was designed to "allow for greater consistency by the [department's] accreditation staff." Second, the department hoped to help accrediting officials better understand what its reviewers were looking for in their petitions for approval. And third, Gilcher said, department officials thought the guide might be useful to the members of the newly constituted National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, the federal advisory committee on accreditation that Congress shut down in 2008 and that will be resuscitated  later this year.
Several accreditors said they welcomed the idea behind the guide, which one said would "take the guesswork" out of what the department was looking for in the petitions the agencies submitted when seeking departmental approval.
But the document itself raised several concerns for accrediting officials, said Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, who was at last week's meeting here.
The document was filled with statements about what institutions "must" do to comply with federal rules and laws governing accreditation, and many of the prescriptive statements, Eaton said, drilled far into the "day to day operation of institutions," to a level of specificity that appeared to set new mandates for institutions.
Asked for examples, virtually all of the accreditors interviewed cited the same one. In a section discussing the federal regulation that requires accreditors to ensure that they are addressing the quality of an institution's faculty, the draft guide said that "[f]aculty credentials must be at least one credential above the credential offered by the program in which they are teaching." (Among other the proposal's flaws, of course, is that this wouldn't work for doctoral degrees.) Such a requirement exists nowhere in federal accreditation laws or rules, said Eaton and others, and would "penetrate the government into what I would call academic judgment areas," such as faculty credentials and student achievement, she said. The guide included other prescriptive statements related to the types of general education institutions must offer, accreditors said.
"These are things we expect to be the province of higher education institutions, and particularly from their faculty," she said. "It's one thing to hold institutions accountable for [ensuring that their faculty have appropriate credentials] -- it's another to speak to what credentialing ought to be, what general education ought to be, from Washington."
Gilcher said that she understood, given the contentiousness of the recent history between the department and accreditors, "why the perception is there" that the agency might be trying to change its policies outside the normal regulatory process. But she insisted that department officials had no such intent, and reiterated what she had told attendees at the recent meetings: that "we will go back through and be very careful about the use of 'must' language and other wording" that strikes an overly regulatory or prescriptive tone.
"I'm pretty confident that the version of the guide that ultimately gets distributed," she said, "will be much better."