ED’s Draft Regulatory Language for Upcoming Neg Reg Includes Changes to Accreditation Process

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter and Megan Walter, Policy & Federal Relations Staff

The Department of Education (ED) next week will begin the process of opening debate around topics in higher education related to accreditation, distance learning, TEACH Grants, and faith-based entities through negotiated rulemaking, or “neg reg,” sessions. ED will kick off the slew of sessions with accreditation regulations next week, and due to the vast number of regulations up for discussion, has designated subcommittees to address the remaining topics immediately following the main negotiations.

Required by the Higher Education Act (HEA) for all rules related to the Title IV programs, neg reg is the process in which ED and affected interest groups negotiate proposed rules with the goal of reaching consensus. ED publishes the proposed rule in the Federal Register as a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) and solicits public comments, which are evaluated for inclusion in the final rule.

The neg reg sessions for accreditation—which are open to the public—will take place January 14-16, February 19-22, and conclude March 25-28. Live streaming is available at edstream.ed.gov. In a departure from past negotiations, in which the first session has generally been a brainstorming and listening session, ED has already released its proposed draft regulatory language.

With regard to accreditation, ED is proposing changes to numerous provisions related to topics such as agency experience, accreditation standards, innovation waivers, and enforcement policies, among others.

In the draft language, ED proposed to change the criteria that an agency must meet before applying for federal recognition. It proposed to eliminate the requirement that an agency show that it had been conducting accrediting activities for two years before applying for recognition, instead proposing that an agency demonstrate it has policies in place that meet accreditation criteria prior to applying.

ED proposed that agencies that accredit distance learning and/or correspondence education programs define for themselves what qualifies a program as such, as well as modify the definition for “regular and substantive interaction” by expanding the definition of instructor to include instructional teams, providing greater flexibility for determining when and how often a student and instructor must interact, and expanding the types of interactions that can be considered substantive.

ED also wrote in the draft language that it will be asking negotiators about when and how accrediting agencies should be allowed to waive certain criteria for institutions in order to promote innovation or in cases where the institution “cannot reasonably be expected to comply with a given standard.” It also wrote that it will seek recommendations on how to prevent agencies from partnering with state licensing agencies and vocational credentialing boards “to exclude the licensure of individuals who prepare for work through apprenticeship, the military, or other work-based learning pathways, and to prevent accreditors from responding to efforts to expand or elevate credentials that serve as minimum requirements for licensure or certification.”

In addition, ED wrote that it will be seeking input from the negotiators on how to ensure that decisions related to transfer credits remain under the purview of institutions, while at the same time preventing schools from denying credits from national accreditors as long as the courses align with those at the institution the student wishes to attend.   

ED proposed to allow accreditors to “provide greater flexibility to institutions to innovate” by allowing agencies to create “alternative standards” for qualifying for accreditation. For example, ED proposed to strike the requirement that an institution or program must show that it “maintains degree and certificate requirements that at least conform to commonly accepted standards.”

ED also proposed changes to the enforcement of standards that accreditors currently abide by. Currently, when institutions or their programs are found not to be meeting compliance standards, accreditors must immediately take adverse action against the institution or program, or require that the institution bring itself or the offending program into compliance within a maximum of two years. ED’s new proposal would remove the timeframe requirement, and instead allow the institution to create a written policy outlining how it plans to bring the institution or program into compliance along with how long it believes it will take to do so.

In the drafts, ED proposed a new regulation that would instruct accreditors to monitor enrollment rates at their accredited institutions. Under the regulation, accreditors must report any institution with an enrollment increase during an academic year equal to 50 percent or more to ED. Related, an accrediting agency that has received an approval of scope expansion must be reviewed by the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) if any of the institution’s distance education or correspondence courses under the accrediting agencies purview have an enrollment increase of 50 percent or more.

ED also proposed to update the definition of “substantive changes,” a process which currently requires a institution or program to obtain approval from its accrediting agency before updating or changing the institution's mission or a program in a significant way. ED is proposing that institutions only need to go through the approval process if the changes are “high-impact, high-risk” changes, which include a handful of actions, such as an institution moving from credit-hour to clock-hour, adding graduate programs when it previously only offered undergraduate degrees or certificates, or if the method of delivery for a program changes from the time the program was last evaluated.

In addition, ED proposed to change the timeline for accrediting agencies to notify ED about negative decisions from 30 days to three days after informing the program, and to remove the requirement that mandates that accrediting agencies must submit a copy of all annual reports they prepare to ED. Under the proposed language, however, agencies must still submit a list—updated annually—to ED of the institutions and programs they have approved for pre-accreditation and accreditation.

The subcommittee sessions on distance learning and educational innovation, TEACH Grants, and faith-based entities—which are not open to the public but will be live streamed—will take place January 17-18, February 12-13, and conclude March 11-12. Stay tuned to Today’s News for coverage of what will be addressed during those sessions.


Publication Date: 1/8/2019

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