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U.S. Eyes Accreditation in Higher Ed. Push

By Alyson Klein — December 05, 2006 5 min read
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The Department of Education is considering ideas for revamping accreditation of higher education to place greater emphasis on measuring student-learning outcomes and making data about individual colleges more accessible to the public.

Both of those goals, which have generated anxiety within the higher education community, were key proposals in a report released in September by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Ms. Spellings charged the panel with making long-range recommendations for improving the nation’s colleges.

Secretary Spellings last week told a forum of about 60 representatives from accrediting agencies, colleges, higher education organizations, and other groups that she wants their input in making changes to accreditation.

“We recognize that we’re in the infancy of a lot of things that have been talked about” in the commission’s report, she said, such as measurement of student learning through so-called “value-added” assessments that compare students’ skills at the beginning and the end of college.

“The federal government can be a purveyor in that, an investor in that,” she said. “We can be a bully pulpit.”

The secretary said she is seeking funding in President Bush’s upcoming budget plan for fiscal 2008 to provide incentives to colleges and universities that implement some of the commission’s proposals, such as measuring learning and increasing transparency.

In the meantime, reworking some of the rules governing the accreditation process is one way the Education Department may be able to act on parts of the commission’s report without congressional approval. The panel also called for a major expansion of need-based student aid, which would require action in Congress.

But, even though the department has more control over the accreditation process than other areas of higher education policy, it is unclear even to department officials just how much the administration can reshape accreditation without major legislative changes.

Six major regional accrediting groups approve higher education institutions in the United States, and at least 60 specialty accreditors review programs targeted to specific careers or degrees. Such groups conduct on-site reviews of colleges and their programs, looking at factors ranging from faculty qualifications to graduation rates. Colleges must be accredited at least once every 10 years or they lose eligibility for federal aid, including government-subsidized loans for their students. The Education Department, in turn, approves accreditation agencies.

Beyond Testing

Secretary Spellings contends that while the accrediting process has put more emphasis on student learning in the past decade, those steps haven’t been very far-reaching or consistent.

The Nov. 29 forum at an office building here, which was intended to generate ideas on how to make the process more focused on learning, included small-group discussions among the participants. Vickie Schray, an aide to Ms. Spellings who served as a deputy director for the higher education commission, encouraged participants to brainstorm freely, rather than try to reach a consensus.

The groups shared their suggestions, such as giving colleges an array of possible outcome measures and allowing them to choose those that best fit their missions. Others groups proposed getting feedback from graduates’ employers or taking into account for accreditation graduate school entrance-exam scores, such as results of the Law School Admissions Test and the Graduate Record Exam.

Some discussion dealt with standardized testing at the college level, a proposal embraced by the commission. But Peter Ewell, the vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a Boulder, Colo.-based nonprofit organization, called such tests “the easy option.” He suggested that colleges develop portfolios of student work as a possible alternative.

Some accreditors said they did not see the need for wholesale changes to the process, since they already require colleges to demonstrate their students have learned. Sandra E. Elman, the president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, an accrediting agency based in Redmond, Wash., said her organization requires colleges in its region to show proof of learning, such as employer-satisfaction surveys or senior research papers.

She said she is wary of any type of common measure for student outcomes, since colleges’ missions are so diverse.

“What might work for one institution might not work for another,” Ms. Elman said in an interview. “When we talk about comparability, it’s troublesome.”

NCSL Weighs In

Meanwhile, some of the federal commission’s recommendations might get a boost from state lawmakers, if legislatures take to heart a report released last week that calls for states to work toward improving their higher education systems, or risk “unnecessary federal intrusion.”

A bipartisan 12-member panel of state lawmakers, established by the National Conference of State Legislatures, echoed some of the federal commission’s proposals. The Nov. 20 report urges the states to rethink their financial-aid systems to expand college access for underserved groups, such as adult learners, and revamp the 12th grade of high school so that it better prepares students for college.

Information on ordering the report, “Transforming Higher Education: National Imperative, State Responsibility,” is available from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The legislators’ report also suggests that states hold colleges accountable for student outcomes, although it does not specifically recommend that lawmakers call for standardized assessments to measure learning. Instead, it notes that accountability could be tied to specific outcomes. As an example, the report cites an Oklahoma program that rewards two- and four-year colleges for improving retention and graduation rates.

The NCSL panel encouraged state lawmakers to reconsider their level of support for colleges. Its report points out that most states are covering a declining share of the cost of higher education. Higher education, it says, is often “the balance-wheel” of state budgets, receiving whatever appropriations are left over after states have paid for K-12 education and other priorities.

That’s because higher education has a “built-in revenue source” in tuition, the report notes. But that pattern doesn’t necessarily align with the goals of boosting enrollment and access, the report says.

At the accreditation forum, Ms. Spellings said she was “very encouraged that NCSL has done something on this. It’s very affirming to the commission and our work.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2006 edition of Education Week as U.S. Eyes Accreditation in Higher Ed. Push

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