WASHINGTON -- The subject of a House of Representatives hearing Thursday seemed like an unusually obscure, in-the-weeds topic for a Congressional committee to spend its time on: an accrediting agency's standards for assessing a college's policies on academic credit hours.
The announcement last year that Brandeis University planned to sell its noted, 6,000-piece collection of modern art stunned and angered museum officials around the world. The university said it needed money for its other operations. But to the art world, the plan represented a rejection of the idea that nonprofit institutions do not sell art from their museums except as a means to expand their collections.
Signs of the economic downturn are evident many places you turn in higher education these days: in the exploding demand for student financial aid, the imposition of faculty and staff furloughs, and an upturn in the number of nonprofit colleges being transformed into for-profit institutions.
One of the country's six regional accrediting agencies risks losing its federal recognition if it is unable to alter its structure so that it is fully independent, financially and operationally, from its parent organization, the U.S. Education Department has warned.
Critics of for-profit higher education have of late drawn attention to what they see as a pattern of "accreditation shopping" in which for-profit entities purchase financially struggling nonprofit colleges, and then hold on to the regional accreditation that the nonprofit colleges had for years, even as the new owners expand or radically change the institutions' missions.
The accreditor of Dana College wants the world to know that it didn't revoke recognition of the college or order its closure. At the same time, the accreditor is standing by a decision that critics say is tantamount to ordering such a closure. And in an unusual move, the accreditor on Friday issued a public defense of its decision.
Like so many small private colleges, Dana College, a small Lutheran institution on the outskirts of Omaha, has long been precariously close to its death.
“I’ve worried about the college as long as I’ve known the college,” says Myrvin Christopherson, a 1961 alumnus who was Dana’s president from 1986 until 2005. During those 19 years, not only did he weather several years of budget deficits and a fire that destroyed the college’s Old Main, but he also increased the college’s endowment from $1 million to more than 10 times that. “It was always able to pull through.”