The Department of Education (ED) and non-federal negotiators wrapped up their fourth and final day of negotiations related to program integrity and institutional quality on Thursday, concluding the day with a continued conversation on accreditation.
On Wednesday, negotiators began a discussion on the department’s issue paper on accreditation. Starting the day on Thursday, negotiators resumed their discussion by focusing on enforcement of accreditation standards. In its draft regulatory text, ED proposed that if an institution or program is not compliant, and does not bring itself into compliance within a specified period, the accrediting agency must take immediate action, or under a “good cause,” extend the period for achieving compliance for a maximum of one additional year.
Jillian Klein, a negotiator representing proprietary institutions of higher education, asked ED to clarify why it selected one year as an appropriate time frame for an extension on a compliance deadline. Herman Bounds, an ED official who led the accreditation discussion, responded that it didn’t necessarily have a reason, but several negotiators had argued for capping the “good cause” extension to avoid letting institutional noncompliance go too far. Bounds noted that this provision is the first time the department has put a timeframe on an extension to meet compliance.
Klein said the year time frame seems arbitrary and asked ED to consider looking at data that indicates if that's an appropriate length of time. However other negotiators, including Barmak Nassirian, representing U.S. military service members and veterans, said the year-long extension to meet compliance was too much and could still potentially harm students.
“This text sort of embodies the tendency of the department’s approach to accreditation, which is to extend the benefit of every doubt to institutions, with almost no regard for the harm that could ensue,” Nassirian said. “Even if [an institution] does manage to turn itself back into compliance, the period during which the institution is noncompliant, could do a lot of harm to students.”
The negotiators also discussed situations in which an institution may be out of compliance and may need an additional extension to meet compliance due to issues like natural disasters, implementation of a teach-out plan, an economic recession, and more. Most negotiators were not in support of the language on enforcement of standards.
Another significant topic of conversation within the committee was a new provision from ED targeted at institutions’ arrangements with online program management companies, coding boot camps and other third-party organizations. Under ED’s drafted regulatory text related to substantive changes, an accrediting agency would have to include in its evaluation of a written arrangement between an accredited institution and a non-title IV eligible entity, an assessment of both financial capacity and expertise of the third-party to provide the portion of the program for which the institution enters a contract.
Carolyn Fast, representing civil rights organizations and consumer advocates, said she appreciated this added language from ED, but urged the department to go further and codify language that would make accrediting agencies obligated to oversee the percentage of programs provided under an arrangement with third-party programs and institutions.
Jamie Studley, representing institutional accrediting agencies recognized by ED’s secretary, said that the concept of the language is reasonable and that it’s up to the institution to make sure its third-party organizations and institutions meet standards. However, she cautioned against additional proposals that would add more language on what accrediting agencies are already doing.
The negotiators then moved on to another provision from ED that would require accrediting agencies to have a mechanism for conducting visits at “reasonable intervals” to all physical locations and branch campuses of the institutions it accredits.
Some negotiators had concerns with this language, including Scott Dolan, who represents private nonprofit institutions of higher education. Dolan said some institutions have many physical locations, some even abroad, making these visits very costly and not necessarily feasible for accreditors. He urged ED instead to focus on areas of greatest risk.
Bounds responded to Dolan and said ED does not think this is an unreasonable ask, considering many of the accreditors would need to do the visits within a 10-year accreditation cycle. Many negotiators were not in support of this language, including Studley, who added that if an institution already has strong student outcomes and no concerns from the accreditor, the visit would not be a good use of resources, especially in hiring site reviewers.
Another draft proposal that was met with lively discussion concerned a provision that would require acceditors to require all institutions to submit teach-out plans upon initial or renewal application for accreditations. According to ED when an institution reaches a point where it needs to submit a teach-out plan, those plans have not been ideal. The department said they hope to prevent future difficulty with teach-out plans by requiring all institutions to have one, in order to make them easier to implement if they need to be put into place.
The proposal was met with pushback from several negotiators, who for the most part agreed with ED’s premise that rushed teach-out plans may fall short, but argued that most schools will never need a teach-out plan, and it would be overly burdensome to require a plan from every school to account for the few that may close.
The session ended with a discussion on when an institution changes accrediting agencies. Under current language the department does not recognize the accreditation or preaccreditation of an eligible institution if that institution is in the process of changing its accrediting agency, unless the department approves the cause of the change to be reasonable.
ED added several instances under which an institution’s request to change accrediting agencies would be considered unreasonable.Those examples include: if the institution has changed accrediting agencies and has not yet completed two full accreditation cycles with its current accrediting agency; or the institution has been directed to select a particular accrediting agency by a party other than the institution, such as under some state laws. Most negotiators were in support of the language.
On Friday, a separate set of other negotiators will gather to discuss issues with federal TRIO programs. The committee on program integrity and institutional quality will meet again for its third and final session on March 4-7. More information will be available on ED’s website.
Publication Date: 2/9/2024