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Accrediting Advisory Panel Makes What May Be Its Final Demand for Standards

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  June 10, 2008 by Paul Basken

If the Education Department’s advisory committee on accreditation holds out any hope that Congress will reconsider its plan to disband the panel, that message may have gotten lost at what could be the group’s final review session.

In a display of the type of behavior that probably moved lawmakers to act against it, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity on Monday challenged two major accrediting agencies over their policies for ensuring college quality.

The advisory panel, known as Naciqi, eventually endorsed giving a list of a dozen applicant agencies on its semiannual docket the approvals necessary to keep operating. They included two major regional accrediting agencies, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges, and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges’ Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities.

Before Naciqi reached those conclusions, however, its most outspoken member, Anne D. Neal, took the opportunity to press both regional agencies over the degree to which their accreditation processes followed the department’s standards for proving the value their colleges give to students.

Ms. Neal, the founder and president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, was appointed last year to Naciqi by the Bush administration, which has been pressing colleges to show greater evidence of student achievement. In turn, Ms. Neal has repeatedly led Naciqi in demanding that accrediting agencies enforce that concern, while suggesting the agencies spend too much time worrying about more-secondary matters of college governance and finance.

In the case of the Southern Association, Ms. Neal cited instances in which its denials of accreditation apparently were more likely due to the institution’s financial struggles than its academic performance.

In the case of the Western Association, she questioned the accreditor’s criticisms of Saint Mary’s College of California over racial and ethnic tensions on its campus and of the University of California over an expansion of governing authority by the system’s Board of Regents.

Such actions “appear to be highly intrusive to the governance authority of the institutions,” Ms. Neal told Ralph A. Wolff, president and executive director of the Western Association’s senior-college commission.

They raise questions as to whether the Western Association can be “a reliable guarantor of educational quality,” Ms. Neal said.

Mr. Wolff said that while Naciqi rules bar him from discussing details of individual cases, the accrediting agency has the right to establish the standards it believes to be appropriate for ensuring academic quality.

Legislation Would Remake Panel

Colleges need accreditation by an agency recognized by the Education Department in order for their students to be eligible for federally subsidized financial aid. Naciqi reviews the performance of accrediting agencies and makes recommendations to the education secretary on their applications for federal recognition.

The 15-member advisory panel, which is appointed by the education secretary, met on Monday as Congress neared final approval of legislation to renew the Higher Education Act, the major law governing federal aid to students and colleges. The bill includes language that would end Naciqi in its current form and create an alternative body with most of its members appointed by Congress.

Congress took that step after colleges complained that the secretary, through Naciqi, was pressing accreditors to demand a degree of proof of student achievement that had not been set out in law. Colleges have resisted such pressure, warning that it could lead to the establishment of a federally mandated curriculum.

The accrediting agencies have largely sided with the colleges, arguing that accreditors already recognize the need to demand proof of student achievement, as long as each college is allowed to define its own mission.

Colleges “recognize that the nation’s economy depends on them [students] being prepared to go out into the work force,” Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Southern Association’s Commission on Colleges, told Naciqi members on Monday.

Aside from Ms. Neal, members of Naciqi showed little inclination to challenge the accrediting agencies. One, Craig D. Swenson, president of Argosy University, won sustained applause from accrediting-agency leaders when he noted that accreditors now face criticism both for removing colleges from their approval list and for keeping them.

With Naciqi next scheduled to meet in December, its chairman, Carol D’Amico, gave what could serve as a brief valedictory address in the event that Congress acts quickly enough to prevent the gathering. “We can all feel good about our participation and the difference I think we have made,” Ms. D’Amico told her fellow Naciqi members.

Questions About Authority

An Education Department official, David Bergeron, director of policy and budget development in the Office of Postsecondary Education, gave hope that Naciqi’s current configuration would survive into December, noting both the slow pace of Congress on the Higher Education Act and the time that would probably be required for lawmakers to name their replacements on the panel.

Mr. Bergeron also criticized language in one version of the bill that would let the panel, rather than the department, set its agenda. “This notion of the chairman developing the agenda is a little curious” because the department holds ultimate authority over decisions on recognizing accrediting agencies, he said.

The fact that the Education Department holds final authority is made clear in the case of the American Academy for Liberal Education. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings last year accepted a recommendation Naciqi made in December 2006 that the academy, known as the AALE, lose its ability to accredit any new colleges. Naciqi cited the accreditor’s failure to clearly define its policies for evaluating collegiate performance. In a follow-up review this past December, Naciqi recommended ending that restriction, but Ms. Spellings has not yet acted on that advice. Department officials have declined to explain.

The delay is greatly harming the AALE’s ability to survive, said the organization’s president, Jeffrey D. Wallin. AALE has 23 member institutions and 18 applicants that are waiting for the matter to be resolved, Mr. Wallin said. There are at least another 10 “that had intended to apply but changed their minds,” he said. “I’m sure there are at least as many that we do not know about.”


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