NAICU Washington Update

Finally, Some Progress on Accreditation

December 20, 2007

Accreditation has become one of the great sideshows of the protracted HEA reauthorization process. Even as Washington finally starts to slow down for the holidays, there has been a hopeful turn in accreditation news this week.

The first encouraging note is that, after five years of controversy between colleges and accreditors over how Congress should rewrite the HEA accreditation guidelines, the two groups reached a compromise this week on language to propose to Congress. It was critical to find the right words to maintain the current balance between accreditors and institutions in assessing student learning outcomes. Without such agreement, the door would remain open for Congress or the Secretary of Education to impose additional federal control.

Representatives of both groups will now try to convince Congress to amend the House bill to include the compromise. The college groups and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) split with the regional, specialized, and national accreditors when an amendment to the House bill stripped out Senate language on institutions' right to set their own measures of student achievement. (See WIR 7/25/07). This amendment opened the door for the Secretary to come back into the legislative debate, and to reassert her authority to impose national standards on student learning.

The same day the schools and accreditors reached their deal, the Secretary's advisory group on accreditation, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), began its semi-annual meeting in Washington. This meeting was one of its most important in many years for the group. Four of the regional accreditors were up for renewal of their federal recognition, and it was expected that the panel could use this forum to take a major step toward imposing national standards for quantifiable and comparable measures of student achievement. Overall, though, the tone was quite different from recent meetings (see WIR 12/18/06; 6/12/07).

Provisions in the hot-off-the-press appropriations bill restrict the Secretary's authority to address student learning outcomes before HEA is finished, and pending HEA legislation would put permanent handcuffs on the Secretary in this area. Both the Senate and House versions of the HEA bill reconstitute NACIQI by taking away two-thirds of the Secretary's appointments are replacing them with congressional appointments. Given these realities, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings was clearly sending signals that she was not going to press forward at this time. To emphasize this, she kicked off the meeting with a personal visit, and stated that it is "completely untrue" that she is promoting a one-size-fits-all approach to institutional accountability.

Also of note was the one-year reinstatement of recognition for the American Academy for Liberal Education, a small accreditor whose recognition was suspended at the last NACIQI meeting. Many viewed that action as a trial balloon to press forward on federal authority to demand student learning outcomes (see WIR 12/18/06).

Most of the members of NACIQI were also on message with similar assurances that they were not going to overreach. However, some - most notably Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni - continued to press for clear-cut "benchmarks" for determining acceptable levels of student learning, and suggested that accreditors needed to address grade inflation. Other members pointed out that the purpose of accreditation is not to establish "bright-line" performance standards, but rather is a process of voluntary, mission-based self-assessment that is validated by external expert review.

At the end of the day, recognition was continued for all four regional accreditors. However, it is clear that debate between these competing visions of accreditation will continue.

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