Re-authorization of the Higher Education Act: Accreditation overhaul? Or is it just a load of codswallop? (That’s baloney to you)

January 12, 2016 Matthew Gulliford


The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) is currently in the process of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) and the role of accreditation in ensuring quality is a top priority. Over the past seventy years or so, federal oversight and regulation of higher education has progressively tightened. The government’s substantial investment in post-secondary education ($150 billion) necessitates a degree of accountability, but how far are they willing to go in the upcoming re-authorization of the HEA?

1992 Re-authorization of the HEA

Using accreditors as “gatekeepers” of federal funds in order to indirectly implement policy initiatives in higher education is not new (e.g. G.I. Bill of 1952, student financial aid), but the 1992 re-authorization of the HEA marked the federal government’s direct involvement with how accreditors should measure quality at member institutions. The re-authorization required accreditation bodies to measure 10 broad standards when reviewing colleges (which are still in place today). The Department of Education can only provide guidelines on how the standards should be met, they cannot enforce expectations; accreditors and colleges determine the particulars based on the institutions’ mission. However, over the years there has been mounting uncertainty surrounding the rigor and flexibility accreditors have provided to measuring these standards, particularly those pertaining to student achievement and outcomes.

The Spellings Commission

Learning outcomes assessment became an undeniable policy concern for accreditors and institutions in 2006 when the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education published its final report, A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education . The Spellings report was particularly critical of accreditation; a greater focus on student learning and the development of a more outcome-focused accreditation system was recommended. Even though the Spellings report was successful in guiding attention to a number of challenges facing higher education, it was generally argued that the report recommended a “one-size-fits-all”, standardized-test approach to measuring student learning outcomes. This is particularly problematic when considering the intricacies of meaningful assessment; standardized assessments across academic programs and departments can be encumbering and insufficient, let alone across schools, colleges, institutions, and States. Even though many of the Spellings Commission’s recommendations were not implemented legislatively, the report’s impetus for accreditation reform and greater accountability for student learning outcomes has grown significantly during the last decade.

Recent Accreditation Policy Recommendations

President Obama called for changes and improvement in accreditation in his 2013 State of Union Address, and only this past summer, Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, described higher education accreditors as the “watchdogs that don’t bark” – much in response to the Wall Street Journal investigation which found 11 regionally accredited colleges with graduation rates below 10%. Most recently, the Department of Education announced a renewed transparency effort in regards to accreditation information, data, and performance, and several executive actions to push accreditors more towards student outcomes-driven accountability. Carol Geary Schneider, President of the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) recently commented on these initiatives, suggesting this to be an opportune time for accreditors and institutions to take the lead in repositioning quality assurance, before federal interests focus everything entirely on economically driven accountability measures. Following on from the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) accreditation policy recommendations in July, the announcement also contained a set of legislative proposals, one of which urges Congress to increase the Department’s authority and ability to actually set specific measurements and expectations regarding student achievement and outcomes. Interestingly, it was Senator Lamar Alexander (current chair of HELP) who actually pushed Congress during the 2008 reauthorization of the HEA to prohibit the Department of Education from regulating student achievement outcomes as much as the Spellings report recommended. At that time, he and others felt this was best left within the academic community – the real question is whether this still stands?

HELP Committee Proposals

In recent hearings and policy paper releases, Senator Lamar Alexander has offered a glimpse of accreditation proposals that are up for consideration during the current reauthorization of the HEA. One of which includes creating more competition within accreditation in order to improve quality; allowing colleges to choose which accrediting agency they would like to be a member of, instead of being regionally tied to one. One proposal the Senator has suggested that I would like to see come to full fruition is allowing accreditors to get back to their original and historical purpose of peer-reviewing the quality of teaching and learning. By cutting the expectations of accreditors to inspect and report on fiscal and administrative matters (such as Title IV eligibility compliance), a more thorough focus and engagement with institutions in regards to curricula, pedagogy, and student learning outcomes could take place. Some media reports have even suggested accreditation as we know it could be discarded altogether and replaced by a new, national accreditation system operated by the federal government, which would be similar to those found in the United Kingdom and Australia. The latter is very unlikely; national quality assurance structures are incredibly expensive and complex, and Senator Lamar Alexander has recently indicated that Congress and the Department of Education are not capable of such endeavors.

2015 Assessment Institute in Indianapolis

I have recently been making my rounds on the conference circuit and to my surprise, none of the aforementioned has been a focus of discussion. In October I attended the 2015 Assessment Institute in Indianapolis. All the assessment luminaries were there, including Peter T. Ewell, Trudy W. Banta, George E. Kuh, and my new academic favorite, Thomas A. Angelo – who rather convincingly compared higher education to HBO’s Game of Thrones during the opening plenary session. The plenary was led by James T. Minor, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education Programs in the Office of Postsecondary Education, U.S. Department of Education. The conference program listed Dr. Minor as “provocateur” for the panel and although I was certain his presentation – “The Federal Role in Outcomes Assessment in Higher Education” – would indeed create a scene worthy of those found in Game of Thrones, in actuality, the plenary session was more like an agreeable luncheon at Downton Abbey! (As we Masterpiece Classicists know, this does not necessarily mean uneventful, but in this case, it surprisingly was). Such affable pleasantries had a lot to do with Dr. Minor’s presentation, which in many respects did not actually address, or even mention, any of the recent debates surrounding accreditation, assessment, and the federal government.

MSCHE 2015 Conference

Likewise, I recently attended the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) 2015 annual conference in Washington, D.C. Here, the keynote speaker was Terry Hartle, Senior Vice President, American Council on Education and his presentation topic, similar to Dr. Minor’s was “Federal Policy and Higher Education.” As promised in the program, Dr. Hartle provided a comprehensive (and skillfully witty) overview of federal policy developments pertaining to higher education in recent years. Yet, the focus on the strong interest Congress has on the future role of accreditation and outcomes assessment, was again, like Dr. Minor’s, rather unassuming and somewhat overlooked.

Maybe I am being a theatrical Brit when it comes to higher education policy conjecture in the U.S. Is it possible that everything I have read surrounding an overhaul of accreditation, particularly during the past year, is all just a load of codswallop? (A very British term for baloney or nonsense). Maybe that’s why nobody is really talking about it or taking it too seriously? With the reauthorization expected anytime soon, who knows which direction Congress will choose…but expect something similar to a Downton Abbey Dowager Countess shake up.

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