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Congress Stops Giving Heartburn to Accreditors

Legislation that troubled higher-education groups has been altered
CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  December 9, 2005 by Burton Bollag

A federal bill that had some college accreditors in a state of high anxiety a year ago has evolved into legislation with which they are now largely comfortable.

When Republican lawmakers introduced a sweeping piece of higher-education legislation in the House of Representatives last year, they included in it provisions intended to end the secrecy that surrounds the way colleges and universities are accredited. The goal, the lawmakers said, was to help consumers make more-informed choices about colleges by making the accreditation system more transparent.

Many accreditors and educators were stunned when they read the details: College accrediting bodies would have been required to publicly disclose summaries of all their findings.

That requirement, many accreditors and college presidents said, would have undermined the whole accreditation system, which they say needs to be based on voluntary, frank exchanges between institutions and their evaluators. If the information was to be revealed, they warned, college administrators would be reluctant to speak candidly about their problems.

But now, after months of lobbying by higher-education associations, the Republicans have backed down from several of the unpopular changes they had proposed. “They’ve heard many of our gravest concerns,” says Susan K. Hattan, a senior consultant with the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “There have been some important concessions.”

The legislation in question is the Higher Education Reauthorization Act, the main law setting federal higher education policy, which Congress must renew every six years. Accreditation is just one of many higher-education issues in the huge bill, but it is one of the most controversial.

The Senate passed its version of the reauthorization act last month—as part of a sweeping budget reconciliation bill approved by a 52-to-47 vote—but the House of Representatives has yet to vote on its reauthorization measure. The House bill, first introduced in May 2004, has been amended from its original version, and higher-education leaders describe the changes as substantial improvements that have made the bill much more palatable and much more in line with the measure passed in the Senate.

“Congress wanted more transparency and openness in the accreditation process,” says Terry W. Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education, an umbrella group representing colleges and universities. “They gave us the chance to show them how to achieve their goals in a way that would not be harmful to colleges and universities, and we did,” he says. “This is how you want public policy to work.”

Debating Disclosure

But some controversial provisions remain. Probably the most widely opposed provision would allow states to start accrediting higher-education institutions, which many accreditors believe would weaken quality control and open the process to political meddling. Some other provisions are supported by only one group—like a proposed rule change, for example, that would allow a college to appeal if its accreditor placed it on probation. The lack of unanimity reflects the conflicting interests of different higher-education groups and the complexity of accreditation.

Legislators have scaled back the new public-disclosure requirements in the bill, but they have not given up on their goal of making accreditation more transparent. Accreditors must now release a summary of their findings about an institution only in the relatively rare cases where they deny or terminate its accreditation.

While no longer requiring the disclosure of all of an accreditor’s findings on institutions, both the House and Senate versions would nonetheless require such disclosure when an accreditor placed an institution on probation. That sanction is considered a sharp warning that an institution must improve deficiencies, but it stops short of the much harsher step of a withdrawal of accreditation.

The authors of the House and Senate bills argue that consumers—students and their families—should have the right to such information when choosing a college. Many educators say they can live with that.

But smaller, specialized institutions fear such disclosure would do more harm than good, says Cynthia A. Davenport, executive director of the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors. “This kind of information can be very damaging, especially to small institutions,” which can see enrollment plummet if even correctable problems are publicized, she says.

Perhaps surprisingly, educators were generally more concerned about being required to disclose findings in the much more frequent cases in which their accreditation is renewed without any sanction. (The provision requiring that has now been removed from the House bill.) That is because even positive findings often contain some suggestions on how to improve minor problems, such as a gap in the library’s holdings, or a shortage of adequate fire exits. If such information were disclosed, many college leaders felt, it might be reported out of context in a way that could hurt an institution’s ability to attract students.

Another provision dropped from the House bill would have required accrediting bodies to publish the names of the thousands of academics who volunteer each year to be part of the teams that visit and evaluate institutions. That provision had been supported by Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group promoting a traditional curriculum and accountability at colleges. Identifying evaluators, she argues, would have pushed them to be less forgiving of institutions’ shortcomings and created an antidote to the “often cozy relationship between accreditors and the schools they accredit.”

The accreditors, however, objected, saying the requirement would have left evaluators open to harassment and even lawsuits from any educators who felt their college had been unfairly penalized. The bill will now only require each accreditor to identify its evaluators from the previous year, without linking them to the particular institutions they visited. Accreditors say that requirement will accomplish nothing but is unlikely to cause any harm. Ms. Neal and a spokeswoman for the House committee that prepared the legislation both say the new language, while providing less disclosure than they wanted, is still an improvement over current legislation, which requires no disclosure of evaluators’ names at all.

Also dropped from the House bill was a requirement that accreditors ensure that institutions provide the government with various data to be used in a “college consumer profile.” Accreditors said the requirement would have turned them into data-collection agents for the government.

Where Credit Is Due

Another provision that was dropped would have established some federal standards governing the recognition of credits earned at another institution when a student transfers. Accreditors and college officials had protested that the proposed rule represented unjustified government meddling in what should be a purely academic decision.

Now the House and the Senate bills both carry a milder stipulation: An institution may not reject credits earned elsewhere simply because the sending institution is not accredited by one of the six big regional accrediting bodies.

Such a provision has long been sought by for-profit institutions, many of which are accredited by one of several specialized national accreditors, like the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, and the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology. For-profit institutions complain that when their students transfer to more-academic institutions, the receiving colleges sometimes refuse to accept credits already earned.

The stipulation that colleges may not reject credits earned at institutions without regional accreditation was also recommended in a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, which said, “It is in the best interest of taxpayers that transfer students do not unnecessarily repeat course work.”

Many higher-education associations say they would rather not have new government rules affecting such decisions. Most do not feel the issue is important enough to take a stand on, but the provision is strongly opposed by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and the American Association of Community Colleges.

Barmak Nassirian, an associate executive director of the admissions officers’ group, says that sometimes the most effective way of determining whether to accept credits from an institution—short of sending out investigators—is to know the identity of its accreditor. For example, he says, a law school might reasonably decide to refuse credits for a law course earned at an institution not accredited by the American Bar Association, the recognized accreditor of law schools.

David S. Baime, the community-college group’s vice president for government relations, says several presidents of two-year colleges have told him they fear the measure would make it harder for them to refuse credits earned at for-profit institutions with lower standards than their own institutions.

Arguing Appeals

Another provision contained in both the House and Senate versions of the bill would guarantee institutions the right to appeal an accreditor’s decision to place them on probation. Currently, only a decision to refuse or revoke accreditation can be appealed.

The provision creating a right to appeal probationary status was promoted almost exclusively by the United Negro College Fund, which has argued for the change in response to what it calls years of unfairly harsh treatment of historically black colleges by accreditors. The target of much of the fund’s criticism, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, disputes the fund’s accusation. But the fund’s case appears to have been strengthened by a well-publicized dispute this year between Edward Waters College and the Southern accrediting group, which ended up restoring accreditation to the college after being sued by it over a revocation decision.

In fact, the United Negro College Fund argues that the bill does not go far enough. Currently, appeals against a loss of accreditation are typically heard by a panel set up by the accrediting body. The fund would like all appeals to be heard by independent panels composed of three outside arbitrators, says William A. Blakey, the fund’s chief lawyer in Washington.

Accreditors oppose the plan, pointing out that appeals have traditionally been allowed only for actions that change an institution’s accreditation status. Probation does not represent a change of status — only a grave warning.

Appeals “slow down the whole procedure,” says Steven D. Crow, executive director of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools’ Higher Learning Commission. “And they are expensive.”

The proposed change, he adds, could make accreditors reluctant to use one of their most powerful instruments to push institutions to improve. The easier it is to appeal probation decisions, he says, “the less likely we would be to use them.” Rather than worrying about fighting against two appeals—the first of probation, the second of accreditation withdrawal—accreditors could decide to resort immediately to the ultimate penalty, withdrawal of accreditation, when a college is found to have deep problems, he said.

Shopping Around

One of the most unpopular accreditation provisions in the House bill would allow states to be accreditors. Under current law the only state with that power is New York, which was grandfathered in when Congress passed a 1991 law barring other states from accrediting colleges. New York uses its power sparingly; the state’s Board of Regents accredits only 20 small private institutions.

Alexa E. Marrero, a spokeswoman for the House committee that prepared the legislation, says the goal is to “infuse competition” in the accreditation system. The committee wants to “give schools the opportunity to find new accreditors” if they don’t like one they deal with.

Carol A. D’Amico, chancellor of Ivy Tech Community College Central Indiana, and a member of a committee that advises the U.S. Department of Education on accreditation matters, agrees, saying “states are very capable of holding higher education institutions accountable.”

But higher-education groups tend to view the proposal as a potentially harmful break with the American accreditation system’s tradition of being based almost entirely on oversight by fellow educators. Mr. Hartle, of the American Council on Education, says the measure is of particular concern to private institutions because “it would give state bureaucrats the right to regulate academic programs” at such colleges. (Such is the norm in most other countries, where any control over the quality of colleges is usually the responsibility of a government agency.)

The change is also opposed by Lawrence J. DeNardis, another member of the committee that advises the education department, who formerly served as president of the University of New Haven and as a Republican congressman from Connecticut. Giving institutions the chance to “shop around” for accreditation, he says, would not promote healthy competition, but would encourage political meddling. The result, he says, would be “the possibility of a political cesspool.”

But on the whole, higher-education leaders believe their persistent lobbying has paid off, turning a bill with many problems into one that most educators can live with.

Even one accreditor sympathetic to the Republicans’ goals says he is glad that the more controversial provisions of the House bill have been toned down. Jeffrey D. Wallin, president of the American Academy for Liberal Education, a small national accreditor established 12 years ago, says he agrees with efforts to make higher education more accountable and accreditation more transparent. But, he says, accreditation is a complex issue. When House Republicans originally proposed their more sweeping—and now retracted—changes, they “weren’t aware of the implications.”

“The public has the right to know,” he says of moves to make accreditation less secretive. But within limits. “There is a point,” he says, “where transparency destroys the process.”


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