U.S. Eyes Accreditation in Higher Ed. Push

By Alyson Klein — December 05, 2006 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Your Questions on the Science of Reading, Answered
Dive into the Science of Reading with K-12 leaders. Discover strategies, policy insights, and more in our webinar.
Content provided by Otus
Mathematics Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Breaking the Cycle: How Districts are Turning around Dismal Math Scores
Math myth: Students just aren't good at it? Join us & learn how districts are boosting math scores.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
How To Tackle The Biggest Hurdles To Effective Tutoring
Learn how districts overcome the three biggest challenges to implementing high-impact tutoring with fidelity: time, talent, and funding.
Content provided by Saga Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Opinion 'Jargon' and 'Fads': Departing IES Chief on State of Ed. Research
Better writing, timelier publication, and more focused research centers can help improve the field, Mark Schneider says.
7 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Federal Electric School Buses Get a Boost From New State and Federal Policies
New federal standards for emissions could accelerate the push to produce buses that run on clean energy.
3 min read
Stockton Unified School District's new electric bus fleet reduces over 120,000 pounds of carbon emissions and leverages The Mobility House's smart charging and energy management system.
A new rule from the Environmental Protection Agency sets higher fuel efficiency standards for heavy-duty vehicles. By 2032, it projects, 40 percent of new medium heavy-duty vehicles, including school buses, will be electric.
Business Wire via AP
Federal What Would Happen to K-12 in a 2nd Trump Term? A Detailed Policy Agenda Offers Clues
A conservative policy agenda could offer the clearest view yet of K-12 education in a second Trump term.
8 min read
Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally, March 9, 2024, in Rome Ga.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally, March 9, 2024, in Rome, Ga. Allies of the former president have assembled a detailed policy agenda for every corner of the federal government with the idea that it would be ready for a conservative president to use at the start of a new term next year.
Mike Stewart/AP
Federal Opinion Student Literacy Rates Are Concerning. How Can We Turn This Around?
The ranking Republican senator on the education committee wants to hear from educators and families about making improvements.
6 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty