Policymakers | Trusteeship

Colleges and Their Accreditors Escape Tougher Scrutiny, for Now

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  January 11, 2008 by Paul Basken

One year ago, American colleges were on the defensive, as the Education Department prepared to write tougher rules on the way federally recognized accrediting agencies should assess how well the institutions teach their students.

Now, as they enter a new year, college leaders may be able to relax a bit, given the way events unfolded last month at a meeting of the federal agency that oversees the accreditors.

At that meeting, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings softened her tone, telling the members of the agency that while she wanted them to keep pushing to hold colleges more accountable for what students actually learn, they should not try to require any specific methods or measures for how accreditors must accomplish that.

“Let me repeat: No one-size-fits-all measures, no standardized tests,” Ms. Spellings told the 15-member advisory panel of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity. Known as Naciqi, the advisory body, appointed by the Education Department, has waged much of the college-accountability battle on the education secretary’s behalf.

“All I ask is that institutions be more clear about the benefits they offer to students,” Ms. Spellings said. “Through the accrediting process, we can help bring this about.”

Her remarks marked a change, at least in tone and emphasis, from earlier in 2007, when the department announced that it would rewrite the federal rules that govern the accreditation process and suggested several specific measures, including standardized tests, by which colleges should be assessed. At last month’s meeting, Ms. Spellings made clear that she wants colleges to choose their own evaluation methods.

The diversity underlying the American system of higher education “makes us the envy of others around the globe,” she told Naciqi members. “We at the U.S. Department of Education have never, and would never, work to undermine that diversity or excellence.”

A Growing Federal Role

Accreditation, once used by colleges as a voluntary system of self-improvement, has expanded into a process overseen by the federal government for purposes that include, most notably, safeguarding federal student-aid programs. Most colleges now seek approval of a federally recognized accrediting agency because they must have it for their students to be eligible for federally backed education loans.

The secretary tried to toughen accreditation rules after her Commission on the Future of Higher Education concluded, in its final report in the fall of 2006, that the system fails to ensure that colleges maintain teaching quality. The commission said that finding was particularly troubling at a time when colleges were raising costs and the nation’s economy was growing more dependent on skilled graduates.

The commission recommended several specific methods of measuring student achievement, including use of the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test that assesses critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and written communication.

Colleges, fearing federal intrusion into their decisions on curriculum and evaluating students, pushed back. Their allies in Congress persuaded Ms. Spellings to terminate the process of writing new accreditation rules, and members of the House of Representatives and the Senate included language in their bills to renew the Higher Education Act that would let Congress, rather than the administration, appoint most members of Naciqi.

Accreditors receive grants of federal recognition lasting up to five years, and Naciqi is responsible for evaluating their performance. The committee’s advisory panel, which holds hearings twice a year with accreditors seeking that recognition, makes recommendations to the secretary of education on which of the agencies deserve approval.

Naciqi’s session last month was a potential turning point in the federal agency’s toughness on accreditors, with four of the nation’s six largest regional accrediting agencies coming before it for five-year renewals of some or all of their federal authority.

One year earlier, Naciqi confronted one of those six, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, criticizing its Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities for not doing enough to ensure “the quality of an institution’s effectiveness based on the student outcomes data it collects.”

Naciqi went further at that session with a smaller accreditor, the American Academy for Liberal Education, which has a reputation as a haven for institutions with conservative leanings. The agency recommended that the academy lose its authority to accredit new institutions because of its failure to clearly define “acceptable levels of institutional success with respect to student achievement.” Ms. Spellings later revoked that authority.

Renewals for Most Groups

By the time Naciqi met last month, however, things had changed. After the pushback from Congress, followed by Ms. Spellings’s own warning to the panel’s members at the opening session, they endorsed the renewal applications of all but two of the 17 accrediting agencies that came before them.

The two that were not endorsed—the liberal-education academy and the Midwifery Education Accreditation Council—received deferrals that gave them continued federal authority to accredit colleges while they resolve remaining problems. The academy still must show a track record of effectively using its new assessment guidelines in accrediting members, and the midwifery council was told to make fixes in such areas as solidifying its operational finances and training its evaluators.

The four larger regional agencies, en route to receiving Naciqi’s endorsement for full five-year renewals of federal recognition, did face some criticism about how willing they have been to force member colleges to measure student performance.

But in all four cases, for the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools’ Higher Learning Commission, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, and the Western association’s Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, that criticism came primarily from just one Naciqi member.

That member, Anne D. Neal, founder and president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, repeatedly asked the accrediting-agency representatives to explain what bottom-line level of student achievement they expected from their members. The agencies, largely unchallenged by Naciqi members other than Ms. Neal, told her that there was no single standard.

“We leave it up to the institution to make its own case” for the validity of its measurements, said Barbara E. Brittingham, director of the New England group.

The experience left Ms. Neal frustrated. Most people “believe that federal accreditation signifies quality,” she said in an interview. “That has been the understanding. And I think what the Naciqi hearing showed is that understanding is fundamentally incorrect.”

Ms. Spellings appointed Ms. Neal to the Naciqi panel last year. Ms. Neal resisted the suggestion that her pursuit of greater accountability has been abandoned by the education secretary. She and Ms. Spellings agree that colleges shouldn’t face “a firm set of lines” on what constitutes success, she said.

However, Ms. Neal said, she believes the colleges have succeeded in controlling the accreditation process: “They’re writing the test, they’re taking the test, and they’re grading the test. And so they all pass.”

“In the meantime,” she said, “students are not literate. Documented studies are showing our graduates are not doing a very good job. So it does suggest the accreditors aren’t doing a very good job.”


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