CHICAGO -- If you closed your eyes and listened to the various highlighted speakers at the Higher Learning Commission's annual meeting here this week, you might have thought that Margaret Spellings and her outcomes-focused colleagues were still running the U.S. Education Department.
Virtually all of the national higher education leaders who spoke to the country's largest accrediting group sent a version of the same message: The federal government is dead serious about holding colleges and universities accountable for their performance, and can be counted on to impose undesirable requirements if higher education officials don't make meaningful changes themselves.
That was a message that college leaders were fully accustomed to delivering and hearing when Spellings and her Republican administration were in charge, but if they hoped that the headlong rush to prod colleges to measure student learning and be more efficient would ease when the Democrats took over the executive branch, they've been disappointed.
"This is meant to be a wakeup call," Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said in Monday's keynote address to the 3,500 administrators and faculty members who participate in the higher ed branch of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.
"To the extent that federal policy makers are now willing to bail out banks and other financial institutions, and to take major equity positions in our auto makers, because those companies are too big to fail, then I believe it’s wise for us to assume they will have little reservation about regulating higher education now that they know it is too important to fail."
Broad's last few words suggest the key difference between the Obama and Bush White Houses as many college leaders see it: While the Bush administration often seemed to dislike and disparage higher education, the Obama administration will be tough on colleges because its officials value higher education and believe it needs to perform much better, and successfully educate many more students, to drive the American economy.
College leaders may like the latter's approach better -- not least because, as Broad pointed out, the Obama administration has lavished $120 billion on colleges and students between last year's economic recovery legislation and this year's student aid overhaul -- but from the standpoint of accountability expectations, they lead to roughly the same place: continuing pressure on colleges to prove that they provide quality education to students at an affordable price, and the threat of unpalatable, top-down requirements if they don't make that case.
In her own speech to the Higher Learning Commission’s members on Sunday, Sylvia Manning, the group’s president, cited several signs that the new administration seemed willing to delve into territory that not long ago would have been viewed as off-limits to federal intrusion.
Among them: A recently published “draft”  of a guide to accreditation that many accrediting officials believe is overly prescriptive. A just-completed round of negotiations  over proposed rules that deal with the definition of a “credit hour” and other issues that touch on academic quality -- areas that have historically been the province of colleges and their faculties. And, of special relevance for the Higher Learning Commission, a trio of critical letters  from the Education Department’s inspector general challenging the association’s policies and those of two other regional accreditors on key matters -- and in North Central’s case, questioning its continued viability. With that stroke, Manning noted, the department’s newfound activism “has come to the doorstep, or into the living room, of HLC.”
Bigger Goals, More Pressure
Several of the speakers noted that this administration is expecting more from higher education than did its predecessor -- most notably, calling for a 50 percent increase in the number of Americans earning a college credential by 2020 -- and that those heightened expectations are coming at a time when there is unlikely to be significant new public money (state or federal) to fuel that growth. That means that colleges, individually and collectively, are going to have to figure out ways to educate more students without significantly increasing their costs -- and without significantly harming quality, Broad of ACE said.
Pressure to measure student learning -- to find out which tactics and approaches are effective, which create efficiency without lowering results -- is increasingly coming from what Broad called the Obama administration's "kitchen cabinet," foundations like the Lumina Foundation for Education (which she singled out) to which the White House and Education Department are increasingly looking for education policy help. She cited an October speech in which the foundation's president, Jamie P. Merisotis, said that student learning should be recognized as the "primary measure of quality in higher education," and heralded the European Union's Bologna process as a potential path for making that so.
Given Lumina's influence with the administration, Broad said, "it is not a stretch to imagine that the federal government will want to, somehow, follow" Europe (and Lumina) down that road.
Contemplating such major changes is scary, and may not be something that many higher education leaders are inclined to do. But given that "the pendulum has swung toward increased regulation in virtually all sectors of our society," and that the Education Department's recent actions have made clear that "national and regional accreditors’ ability to judge quality is under the microsope..., we cannot lay low and hope that the glare of the spotlight will eventually fall on others," Broad told the Higher Learning Commission audience.
"If we fail to act, it is likely that change will be imposed upon us, with potentially serious consequences for the governance structure that has allowed the United States to develop the best, most inclusive" higher education system in the world.
And college leaders must act fast, she said. While higher ed groups have been warned repeatedly that they must act before Congress next renews the Higher Education Act -- a process that will begin in earnest in two or three years -- the reality is that politicians in Washington no longer feel obliged to hold off on major changes to higher education policy until that main law is reviewed. Congress has passed "seven major pieces of legislation" related to higher education in recent years, and "I wish I could tell you that the window is open" until the next reauthorization, Broad said. "But we cannot presume that we have the luxury of years within which to get our collective house in order. We must act quickly."
While they heard much in the way of exhortation to act from Broad and the other speakers, those in the audience at the accreditor's meeting may have found themselves left wanting more information about what they might be doing to bring about the kind of wholesale innovation that might persuade skeptical politicians that higher education can become significantly more productive without lowering quality.
Broad stopped short of endorsing, or even mentioning, specific reforms that might help make that case -- perhaps because she herself did not want to be seen as engaging in the sort of "top-down" dictates that she wants to discourage the government from making.
But where will such large-scale change come from? The regional accreditors acting together to align their standards? Groups of colleges working together to agree on a common set of learning outcomes for general education, building on the work  of the American Association of Colleges and Universities?
No answers here, yet.