Education hits roadblocks on bringing accountability to colleges

The Education Department has hit a series of roadblocks in its effort to bring "accountability" -- a hallmark of its No Child Left Behind initiative for the lower grades -- to colleges and universities. Congress is poised to block the department's standards-based agenda, a project of Secretary Margaret Spellings that has attracted few legislative champions.

In the spring, the Education Department held negotiations on regulations holding colleges and universities accountable for whether their students are learning, but it couldn't reach consensus. In July the Senate passed a bill blocking further regulatory moves. Next week's House Education and Labor Committee markup of legislation to renew the law governing higher education may be the department's last chance to push its accountability agenda, because congressional leaders have already kicked over until next year legislation to reauthorize No Child Left Behind.

Spellings wants to extend the results-oriented approach of the K-12 program to higher education, pushing institutions of higher learning to measure and report on their students' academic performance, as the secretary's Commission on the Future of Higher Education called for last year.

The vehicle the department chose for enforcing accountability was accreditation, a process meant to ensure academic rigor that is carried out by private associations and is vital to schools that want to receive federal dollars. To protect its nearly $2 billion annual investment in higher education, the Education Department sets standards for and recognizes accrediting bodies. Only institutions and courses of study accredited by agencies that pass muster with the department are eligible to offer federal financial aid and receive federal money.

Concluding that accreditation "has significant shortcomings," Spellings's commission called for schools to use such gauges of student achievement as test scores and graduation rates as a condition of their accreditation, and urged accreditors to give these measures greater weight in evaluating schools.

But opponents in Congress and among the schools and accrediting agencies charged that the department wants to federalize higher education and impose a "one-size-fits-all" standard that ignores the independence and decentralization that has made American postsecondary education successful. And they say that the department and its commission unnecessarily alienated potential allies with its strong condemnation of the accrediting process, its "we-know-best" approach to changing it, and its attempt to use the regulatory process to force change.

"They definitely handled it with a tin ear," said a congressional aide who asked not to be named. "They came at it with the attitude that higher education is broken and we're so smart that we know how it should be fixed, and if you're not with us you're against us." The aide added, "We could have accomplished a lot. Now we're trying to make lemonade out of lemons."

Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, said that "from day one," the messages about accreditation from the commission, which was convened in October 2005 and issued its final report in September 2006, "were negative, and that produced a very strong reaction" from higher-education leaders. Her group represents and recognizes accrediting bodies.

Through the accrediting process, a school or program evaluates whether it is accomplishing its mission and undergoes review by representatives of the accrediting agency. "Institutional" accreditation applies to an entire college or university; "programmatic" accreditation governs specific academic programs, departments, or schools within an institution, such as nursing, law, or engineering degree programs, as well as to freestanding professional and specialized schools. Eight regionally based accrediting organizations, 11 national accreditors, and 61 programmatic groups collectively accredit more than 6,800 postsecondary institutions and 18,000 programs of study, according to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Critics charge that the system is closed and clubby because schools that belong to the various accrediting associations evaluate one another in reviews that are not easily accessible to the public.

Announcing her plan to act on the commission's report, Spellings said that accreditation "is largely focused on inputs, more on how many books are in a college library than whether students can actually understand them.... We need to make higher education more accountable by opening up the ivory towers and putting information at the fingertips of students and families."

Beginning in February, the department held four negotiating sessions on its accreditation proposals with representatives of higher-education interests. Two of the most controversial were aimed at outlining specific quantitative and qualitative standards for measuring students' success, and setting strict rules governing transfer credits between institutions. When the talks concluded on June 1, participants had reached agreement on only five of the department's 15 proposals. But before Education could proceed with formally proposing regulations, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee wrote to Spellings on June 14 urging her to defer action until Congress had reauthorized the Higher Education Act. The department backed off.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, said that colleges feared that the draft regulations "would force accreditors to use a very limited and inflexible set of standards to look at institutions." Department officials, he said, were acting "outside of the legislative process and pushing the edge of the envelope in terms of their statutory authority" to regulate academic affairs under the Higher Education Act.

In a statement to National Journal, Undersecretary of Education Sara Martinez Tucker responded, "Far from circumventing Congress, we adhered to the [regulatory negotiating] process they established ... to clarify and improve existing laws. The purpose of our efforts was not to federalize higher education. All we want to do is help more students gain access to it."

Martinez Tucker added, "We were not calling for a one-size-fits-all measure of quality. We simply want the current system of accreditation to better emphasize student learning and achievement, as the law requires. The proposed regulations would have placed responsibility where it belongs -- with colleges and universities. They would set educational objectives tailored to their unique mission and determine how they should measure effectiveness."

The regulatory effort alarmed higher-education lobbying groups, collectively referred to as "One Dupont Circle" for the Washington address where most are located. The education groups are heavy hitters on Capitol Hill because practically all members of Congress have postsecondary learning institutions in their district or state.

By the end of July, Congress dealt the accreditation overhaul twin blows. Appropriators cut off funding for the regulations in the still-pending Labor-HHS-Education spending bill, and the Senate unanimously passed a Higher Education Act reauthorization bill that prohibits the secretary from issuing specific standards for accrediting agencies to use in reviewing institutions and programs.

Leading the charge was Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former Education secretary, former president of the University of Tennessee, and a senior member of the HELP Committee. In a May 24 floor speech, Alexander criticized the department for "proposing to restrict autonomy, choice, and competition."

A member of the Spellings Commission disagrees. "The commission was saying you need to bolster the accreditation process and maybe have more review by the federal government, but the Dupont Circle crowd didn't want it and they were successful," said Arthur Rothkopf, senior vice president and counselor to the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "They outlobbied the department."

Accreditation critic Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, complained, "Good ideas often go to die at One Dupont Circle, and the forces in favor of the status quo run up to Capitol Hill and, unfortunately, are listened to. There isn't much of a constituency for greater accountability."

Neal wants Congress to sever the link between accreditation and federal aid, end regional agencies' "monopoly" on accrediting schools within their region, and require all accreditors to compete for schools' business. Although such radical change is unlikely, Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., a senior member of the House Education and Labor Committee and Neal's husband, has a proposal to let schools opt out of the current system and maintain their accreditation if they report data on admissions requirements, affordability, and student success, among other consumer concerns. Petri said he will offer his language at next week's markup if the committee bill doesn't include such an alternative.

For their part, higher-education advocates are pleased so far. "In telling the secretary to cut it out, the Senate bill pretty well got it right," said Susan Hattan, senior consultant for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents the major private institutions. "We would hope the House bill would take a similar position."

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