Policymakers | Trusteeship

Federal Panel Shows Greater Tolerance of Letting Colleges Define Their Own Measures of Success

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  December 19, 2007 by Paul Basken

A chastened federal review panel on Tuesday opened its first round of assessments of college accrediting agencies since Congress beat back the panel’s administration-inspired attempt to impose tougher requirements for student-learning measures.

At the opening of this week’s two-day session, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings lectured the panel on the need to let colleges define their own measures of success. The panel promptly recommended renewed recognition for several accreditors, including two of the nation’s largest. It then resumed the process of penalizing one of their smaller competitors.

Ms. Spellings told the administration-appointed National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, or Naciqi, that she wanted its members to keep pushing her agenda of promoting greater accountability among colleges for what students actually learn. At the same time, she said, Naciqi should not try to require any specific methods or measures.

“Let me repeat: No one-size-fits-all measures; no standardized tests,” Ms. Spellings told the 15-member panel. “All I ask is that institutions be more clear about the benefits they offer to students. Through the accrediting process, we can help bring this about.”

A Persistent Message

That is the message the secretary has delivered since taking office nearly three years ago. Yet the Department of Education and its appointees have sometimes suggested specific measures that colleges might consider using, including standardized tests, and those efforts have fueled complaints from both colleges and accreditors that Ms. Spellings intends to dictate terms.

That fear has been exacerbated by Naciqi’s recent practice of demanding that accreditors require the colleges they oversee to show explicit proof of student accomplishments, and by Ms. Spellings’s own attempt this summer to rewrite the federal regulations defining accreditation.

The secretary pulled back from that latter tactic under a bipartisan barrage of protest from Capitol Hill, and has worked since then to emphasize a more cooperative side of her accountability crusade.

In addition to Ms. Spellings’s instructions on Tuesday morning, Naciqi members got a “training” course from the department on Monday in which they were reminded of the guidelines for judging accreditors and were warned to apply those guidelines consistently to all accrediting agencies.

Renewal for Accreditors

With that in mind, Naciqi moved to its two-day slate of applications from organizations seeking renewal of their accrediting authority. The panel began by endorsing renewals for several accreditors, including the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools’ Higher Learning Commission and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ Commission on Institutions of Higher Education—two of the nation’s six major regional accreditors.

The New England group won a nearly unanimous endorsement, even though the commission’s director, Barbara E. Brittingham, insisted throughout a volley of questioning that her agency does not have any single measure or set of measures for deciding whether a college is teaching its students adequately.

North Central’s Higher Learning Commission also won approval for a full five-year renewal, with a requirement to submit an interim status report next year, despite a report from the Naciqi staff identifying six issues needing corrective action.

The review was largely a valedictory for the commission’s president, Steven D. Crow, who is retiring next year from the nation’s largest accrediting group and sat through brief speeches of congratulations from some Naciqi members.

Naciqi took a tougher approach to the American Academy for Liberal Education, which accredits 10 small, religiously affiliated institutions in the United States, including Ave Maria College, Thomas Aquinas College, and the University of Dallas.

Another Chance for a Small Accreditor

Despite its reputation as a haven for conservatives in higher education, the academy, which is known as AALE, became a showcase last December for the administration’s insistence upon greater measures of student learning. The review panel said then that AALE had failed to clearly define its policies for evaluating collegiate performance, and recommended that it lose its ability to accredit any new colleges. Ms. Spellings later put that recommendation in place, forcing the small accreditor back before Naciqi this month for a follow-up review.

Colleges need approval by an accrediting agency recognized by the Education Department in order for their students to remain eligible for federally supported loans. Naciqi holds hearings with accreditors and makes recommendations to the secretary on which deserve approval.

AALE returned for its follow-up review this week, with Naciqi’s professional staff having graded the accreditor as largely complying with the conditions set out a year ago, though without having fully demonstrated changes through updated assessments of its member colleges.

A department official who prepared the staff analysis, Steve Porcelli, told Naciqi that the accreditor’s leadership had been a “failure” in the past. Yet the AALE’s member institutions had forced changes that made the academy worthy of another one-year extension of accrediting authority, Mr. Porcelli said. “To not give it a chance would be almost a shame,” he said.

Naciqi did endorse the one-year extension, and it also voted unanimously to suggest that the secretary allow the academy to resume accrediting new applicant colleges. That change is essential to allowing a small start-up accreditor such as AALE the chance to survive, said one Naciqi member, H. James Towey, president of Saint Vincent College in Pennsylvania.

Yet Naciqi’s treatment of AALE, when compared to its treatment of larger more-established accreditors such as North Central’s Higher Learning Commission, suggests that the panel still hasn’t accepted Ms. Spellings’ admonition that it treat all applicants evenhandedly, Mr. Towey said.

The panel should demand greater emphasis on student achievement, he said. “It’s troubling if that condition is just going to be applied to the little groups,” he said.

His concern was endorsed by another Naciqi member, Anne D. Neal, who is founder and president of the conservative-leaning American Council of Trustees and Alumni and is one of the review panel’s staunchest advocates of student-performance measures.

Questions of Standards

During the panel’s review of the New England Association’s Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, Ms. Neal raised a series of possible repercussions of allowing colleges to set their own terms of success. As one hypothetical example, Ms. Neal asked if the accreditor would accept a college that set a goal of having a 10-percent literacy rate among its students.

Ms. Brittingham repeated that the colleges set their own standards, but that the accreditor then critically evaluated them, and probably would not accept such a low score on student literacy. “It isn’t simply relying on what the institution asserts,” she said. “It’s a matter of judgment” on the part of the accreditor, Ms. Brittingham told Ms. Neal.

Other Naciqi members expressed confidence in the New England commission, saying its emphasis on “outcomes” measures put it ahead of other accreditors in demanding that colleges grade themselves on specific indicators, such as retention and graduation rates.

Ms. Neal said the accreditor might only be “putting form over substance,” since the agency’s extensive policy language on the topic still left it without minimum performance standards.

“The applicant has produced a lot of paper” describing its review procedures, Ms. Neal said. “But it sounds very much like navel gazing to the average person.” Smaller agencies such as AALE may do an even better job of evaluating colleges but don’t have the resources necessary to make them appear compliant, she said.

Mr. Crow may have been saved such close scrutiny himself by a ruling from department lawyers that Ms. Neal must recuse herself from involvement in his agency’s case because she served as a volunteer adviser to a donor fund at the University of Illinois, one of more than 1,000 institutions accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Appearing before Naciqi in the early afternoon, he confessed: “I would have had a more comfortable lunch period had I known that Anne Neal wasn’t going to be here.”


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