WASHINGTON -- As the federal committee that evaluates accrediting agencies gathered Wednesday morning for its semiannual meeting, one thing was clear to everyone involved: the Education Department is getting pickier.
“Granular” was the word of choice among committee members to describe the department’s standards in evaluating accreditors. It was used liberally at the meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, which is charged with recommending to the U.S. education secretary which accrediting agencies should (and shouldn't) be recognized.
The committee’s 17 members evaluated seven accrediting agencies Wednesday, with three more to follow today. Although the members occasionally expressed frustration with the increasingly stringent requirements, saying that they wanted to draw a distinction between agencies with serious problems and those that needed to make only minor changes, they eventually accepted the department’s recommendation for each. Those recommendations, in most cases, withheld full approval, requiring the agencies to comply with departmental demands within the year.
The committee, known by its initials as NACIQI (pronounced nuh-SEE-kee), has had a turbulent past few years, since then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings made accreditation a centerpiece  of her reform agenda. The committee was essentially eliminated in the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act , but reconstituted with members appointed by both houses of Congress  as well as the Education Department. In December, it met for the first time in more than two years .
The committee reviews reports from Education Department staff members on each accreditor, then votes on whether to recommend that the federal government grant or withhold official recognition. Because institutions must be accredited by a federally recognized body for its students to be eligible for federal financial aid, the committee, made up largely of college and university leaders from the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, wields a great deal of influence.
This year, the Education Department said in its reports that only 2 of the 10 agencies up for review should be recommended for a full five-year term without any caveats, fewer than in recent memory. The remaining eight accreditors were recommended for a one-year extension, during which they would have to prove they had come into compliance with all department regulations.
The increased pickiness -- or, as the committee members preferred to call it, “granularity” -- reflects in part a changed regulatory environment at the Education Department. In the past, regulations were changed almost exclusively when the Higher Education Act was renewed or amended. Now new rules are handed down with increasing frequency.
Many of the accreditors reviewed simply lacked the adequate documentation to prove that they had met the department’s requirements, including regulations governing financial transparency and those requiring that a certain number of members of the accrediting commissions be members of the public. Violations that agency representatives said had gone unnoticed in past reviews by department staff members were now put under the microscope.
This caused some consternation among the panel's members, who tried to distinguish the accreditors who simply lacked adequate documentation, the most common problem cited Wednesday, from those with more serious structural problems.
“We want to have some intermediate option here,” said Frank Wu, chancellor and dean of the University of California's Hastings College of Law. He added, drawing laughter, ““Is there some other way, a workaround here, that allows us to distinguish between ‘out of compliance’ and ‘really out of compliance’?”
Of the seven agencies reviewed Wednesday, two, the American Osteopathic Association and the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, were granted five-year recognition. Four other accrediting commissions -- those of the American Psychological Association and the Association of Theological Schools, as well as the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools -- were given to understand that they should have little trouble coming into compliance within a year.
But one agency ran into major problems. The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, which accredits more than 850 for-profit colleges, was the agency that fought the most strenuously against the Education Department’s recommendations and encountered stronger criticism from the committee.
NACIQI members expressed concern about program-level standards, although the accreditor has standards for institutions to meet, and the composition of the accrediting body, which is heavy on administrators and light on academics. They joined the Education Department's staff report in criticizing ACICS’s request for permission to begin accrediting professional doctoral programs, including doctorates in osteopathic and veterinary medicine.
The agency currently oversees master’s degree programs in many fields, and has operated a pilot program overseeing doctorates in business management, computer engineering and pharmacy. The department noted that there had been no complaints about those programs. But committee members said the agency’s request to oversee up to 13 doctoral degrees or fields was too broad and lacked documentation to prove ACICS could do it successfully.
“Several of the ones they’re asking for are life and death -- doctors,” said Steve Porcelli, who presented the Education Department’s report. “We’re really dealing with a serious request, and if it wasn’t so open-ended, the (department) staff could recommend, yes, they do a fine job.”
For its part, ACICS argued that it had already demonstrated its ability to oversee doctoral degree programs. In response to the department’s other complaints, such as that the agency does not have program-level benchmarks for student success, the agency’s leadership said it had been found to be in compliance in the past.
“ACICS is prepared and eager to address the residual findings by the staff and to address additional compliance in the report,” said Albert Gray, the agency’s executive director and CEO.
In the end, committee members voted to grant a one-year continuation, during which ACICS would have to submit a compliance report -- the same verdict as for other agencies the committee said were less troubled. But they did not grant permission for the agency to begin overseeing doctoral degrees, saying instead that it could return and request permission at any time after coming into compliance on the other concerns.
At the beginning of his presentation, Porcelli alluded to the department’s recent effort to step up oversight of for-profit colleges with the “gainful employment” rule. “We realize the complexity of the situation and the application of the regulation to protect students in for-profit schools,” he said. Though some committee members pushed the accreditor to require schools to disclose more information to students, the new rule did not appear to play a large role in the commission’s decision. Another accreditor of for-profit colleges, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, gained an extension of recognition easily.
Still, the heightened regulatory environment influenced the department's decisions, agency leaders said.
“You have to keep your eyes open to what is going on around you,” said Kenneth Veit, chairman of the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation, one of the two agencies recommended for full five-year recognition. When committee members asked how the agency was able to stay in compliance when others struggled, he said being aware of the regulatory atmosphere was key. “Be proactive and respond and stay ahead of where you think things are going,” he said.