The federal panel that advises the U.S. education secretary on accreditation began its biannual meeting in Washington Tuesday, fighting perceptions that it has overstepped its bounds and hoping to ward off Congressional legislation that would reshape its membership and limit its authority.
Accreditation is often defined as the "voluntary" system of peer review by which higher education regulates itself. But there’s really nothing voluntary about it, some critics argue, given that colleges and universities must be accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Education Department for their students to qualify for federal financial aid. In essence, if you want your students to receive federal student aid – and virtually all institutions do, and many would not survive without it -- you must be accredited.
Accreditors have many detailed rules that they expect colleges to meet -- requirements that relate to courses, faculties, facilities, money and more. But what about the use of adjunct faculty members -- an issue that is the subject of increasing debate in higher education? What have the accreditors said or done?
A year after Education Secretary Margaret Spellings abandoned plans to propose new federal rules governing higher education accreditation, under heavy pressure from members of Congress, the Education Department is reportedly contemplating issuing such regulations when legislation to renew the Higher Education Act becomes law. That possibility is being met with astonishment by college leaders and many on Capitol Hill, who describe it as both practically difficult and politically foolhardy.