A group of higher education stakeholders reconvened for the second of three multi-day sessions organized to write federal regulations related to accreditation, and other issues such as distance education and innovation, faith-based entities, and the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant program.
The main committee is tasked with finalizing the regulations for all topics, but is spending its time focusing on accreditation, while subcommittees on each of the other three topics present recommendations specific to their areas for the full committee to consider. The negotiated rulemaking session—or “neg reg”—began its work Tuesday by considering several questions the Department of Education (ED) posed to negotiators related to potential changes on alternative standards and waivers for accrediting agencies, the separate and independent nature of accrediting agencies, the transfer of credit, and measures of student achievement.
Discussion on waivers and alternative standards began during the committee’s first meeting last month, when ED asked for ideas as to when and how accreditors could be allowed to waive certain criteria for institutions so as to not stifle innovation. During last month’s meeting, Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education (ACE), representing private nonprofit institutions, suggested that in order to encourage accrediting agencies, which “by nature are conservative organizations,” to approve innovative ideas from institutions, ED should take some of the responsibility if the implemented new ideas are found to be problematic. He suggested that accreditors considering granting approval to institutions with experimental efforts be encouraged to inquire from ED about whether they should, in fact, grant approval to those institutions, with the understanding that ED would take some of the blame if the school fails to produce positive results.
The committee continued that discussion on Tuesday, with several committee members emphasizing that transparency would be key in any changes to alternative standards or waivers for institutions, and that the regulations should be written in a way to drive innovation. Still, members of the committee also noted that the regulations also need to find a balance to protect students. Jillian Klein, representing private proprietary institutions, said that because “not every innovation is going to lead to success” there should also be clear expectations about how success is measured, a timeline to evaluate different or innovative programs, as well as what happens after the evaluation so students are not unfairly harmed. Klein also expressed concern with how this proposal would dovetail with another proposal to potentially allow new accreditors to enter the higher education space.
Barbara Gellman-Danley, representing regional accrediting agencies, proposed language that would allow accreditors to use new or current waiver policies approved through their own internal decision-making processes. Using the waivers, she proposed, would allow for and encourage innovation. However, the group could not agree on parts of the proposed language, such as penalties. While Gellman-Danley’s proposal said that ED, the Office of Inspector General, and the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) could not impose penalties or litigations, others took issue with that and questioned whether such language would even be permitted in a regulation.
Gellman-Danley’s proposal went on to say that the waiver policies would be transparent on websites and through other forms of communication, and that all students participating in a program that received a waiver would be allowed to retake a course or program, without additional cost, if it does not succeed. The students would be required to sign an agreement ahead of time.
In the afternoon, the committee heard its first report from a subcommittee, which focused on proposing changes to several definitions, such as pre-accreditation and substantial compliance. The group spent a significant amount of time debating specific conditions related to pre-accreditation and under which circumstances an institution could have access to Title IV aid without full accreditation.
The subcommittee had proposed a definition that stated that an agency’s pre-accreditation standards should predict success for an institution or program seeking accreditation, that all credits and degrees earned by an institution or program that is pre-accredited are considered to be from an accredited institution or program, and that institutions or programs with pre-accreditation status must have a teach-out agreement in place with an accredited institution.
There was disagreement, however, over language that said if an accrediting agency were to deny accreditation to an institution or program with pre-accreditation status, “the agency may maintain the institution’s or program’s pre-accreditation until [it] has had a reasonable time to complete the activities in its teach-out agreement to undertake to assist students in transferring or completing their program(s).” Some were concerned that institutions or programs denied accreditation could still have access to federal financial aid funds.
The group generally agreed to the first part of the definition, but did not come to a conclusion about how to move forward with regard to the portion allowing pre-accredited institutions or programs to maintain their status following an accreditation denial.
ED officials also responded to several data requests put forth during the first neg reg session last month. One request in particular related to a controversial proposal to limit the number of states in which a regional accrediting agency could operate without being forced to become a national accreditor. When ED officials said they felt the change would not have a significant impact on students, Terry Hartle, representing private nonprofit institutions, strongly objected, saying the scope of the proposal was “breathtaking.”
“This will be the biggest change in accreditation since these agencies emerged in the 19th century,” he said. “And you’re proposing to do it through the regulatory process? This is not a small matter. But aside from whether or not you have the authority to do it, the question is whether you even should be thinking about doing this through a regulatory process.”
Under the proposal, he continued, an institution that has campuses in multiple cities spanning several states, such as Charlotte, Seattle, and Silicon Valley, would need to get accredited by three different agencies.
“All this happens in a relatively short period of time because the clock would start ticking on November 1,” Hartle said. “There’s an 18-month period and then you would lose your accreditor, students would lose their rights to financial aid. This is a chaos proposal. And you’re downplaying—you are ignoring the consequences that are going to follow. You shouldn’t just say it’s not going to affect students. You don’t know that. You’re guessing, and you’re wrong.”
Likewise, Gellman-Danley criticized the proposal, saying there was “no way” the committee could tackle the topic at the current point in time.
“I would like to point out the minimization of the huge collateral damage by this scheme, which is an irony of choices,” she said. “The consequences of this are so huge, and it’s also a decision. It’s nationalizing higher education. And it’s a decision that is absolutely disruptive and will cause chaos.”
Publication Date: 2/20/2019