November 5, 1998
At a time when most of what you hear from Washington is not especially welcome, I am happy to report a bit of good news for colleges and universities. Congress has completed its work reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA), and the president has signed the new amendments into law.
The bill includes some important and positive changes in federal policy toward voluntary accreditation. Most prominent is the elimination of State Postsecondary Review Entities (SPREs). Accompanying their demise is a collection of small but important changes in the standards for voluntary accreditation that, taken together, should reduce the administrative burdens on institutions and their accrediting organizations. Also, the bill includes an approach to distance learning that reinforces the role of voluntary accreditation in assuring quality for this vital area. As we view HEA-98, it goes a long way toward reaffirming voluntary accreditation (not federal regulation) as the principal means of assuring quality in higher education programs that receive federal support--one of the key objectives for the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) in this reauthorization identified by its board of directors last year.
These actions demonstrated that at least some of the faith members of Congress had lost in the effectiveness of voluntary accreditation has been restored. This is a far cry from six years ago, when, in its fervor to combat fraud and abuse and reduce student loan defaults, Congress in effect "federalized" voluntary accreditation.
Many of you will recall how the last reauthorization of the HEA, in 1992, included initiatives that threatened to erode the autonomy of higher education institutions over their academic affairs. The 1992 law also saddled both institutions and accrediting organizations with new administrative requirements. Those amendments grew out of a widespread view in Congress that the traditional system of accreditation operated by the higher education community was inadequate to meet the program integrity and quality assurance requirements of federal student aid programs. For most members of Congress, "integrity" meant not seeing more ugly headlines about defaults and other program abuses. In federal parlance, "quality assurance" means that a reliable authority attests that programs meet recognized educational standards.
Although the SPREs never were implemented, their elimination from the law is welcome news. It ends for now the threat of the federal government requiring and funding the formation of new state agencies that would duplicate the work done by federal officials and, in some cases, by accreditors and possibly engage in other intrusive activities.
Other changes in HEA-98 should reduce administrative burdens. In 1992, accreditors were ordered to examine institutions’ default rates and their compliance with federal administrative rules. They also were obliged to render judgments about tuition levels in relation to course length and to measure program length in clock or credit hours. These activities were far outside the traditional roles of accrediting organizations, which view themselves as peers focused on academic programs and quality improvement rather than agents of the federal government. HEA-98 modifies each of these provisions, and several others.
Distance learning emerged during reauthorization as an issue of considerable importance. Although it was not anticipated initially by the CHEA board in its legislative priorities, we nonetheless were able to influence Congress’s approach to assuring quality in distance learning. For example, HEA-98 specifies that Department of Education (ED) recognition of accreditation of distance education programs should be subject to the same criteria as on-site programs, and not separate, additional standards. The bill also requires participants in the new Distance Education Demonstration Program to work with accreditors on their quality assurance efforts.
The shift in Congress’s attitude toward voluntary accreditation can be gauged as well by what did not happen in HEA-98. CHEA and its allies were successful in our efforts to convince Congress to eliminate from the final version of the bill the following provisions offered in earlier drafts, all of which we considered problematic for voluntary accreditation:
- separate and additional standards for distance education programs in the criteria used by ED to recognize accrediting organizations;
- additional responsibility for accrediting organizations to assess the refund policies of their members;
- an unprecedented federal mandate that the Secretary of Education help establish a new voluntary accrediting organization (in this instance, for tribal colleges); and
- a federal requirement that some degree-granting programs (in this instance, those that prepare teachers) be accredited by a specialized accrediting organi-zation; otherwise, they and their students would become ineligible for federal assistance.
While Congress certainly listened to the views of accreditors and our supporters, it did not adopt all of our suggestions. HEA-98 leaves in place a Department of Education regulation requiring site visits to all new locations that offer more than half of a degree program. However, the report that accompanies the law discusses the issue sympathetically. This topic will remain a regulatory issue, and will be resolved in the rule-making process. We were unable to convince Congress not to require the Secretary of Education to conduct a study of transfer of credits policy that many in the community regard as a potential threat to institutional autonomy. However, the conferees did note in their report that they do not intend to regulate the policies or practices of institutions of higher education.
What led Congress to change its attitude toward voluntary accreditation and enact more favorable policies? Three principal factors contributed to this shift:
- Most broadly, the themes of federal deregulation and local control remained popular for both parties in Congress, as well as the Administration.
- Student loan default rates fell and program reforms reduced fraud and abuse in student aid, saving the federal government billions of dollars.
- The higher education community itself took unusual steps to strengthen accreditation and enhance its public representation.
This last point is particularly important for CHEA’s future role. HEA-92 confirmed that the federal government was prepared to use its regulatory powers and resources to restore the integrity of student aid programs and impose quality assurance procedures, and that it would not easily be deterred by traditional arguments favoring self-regulation and academic freedom. By establishing CHEA and giving it a broad mandate, higher education leaders demonstrated their willingness to put their own house in order, and their ability to fortify their self-regulatory systems. That mandate included building support among federal policy makers for voluntary accreditation.
Beginning in 1997, CHEA undertook a comprehensive effort to improve relations between accreditors and the federal government. Over the past year, CHEA has:
- worked directly with government officials, especially in Congress, to explain the relationship of accreditation to quality assurance in federally supported programs;
- supplied on-going advice and assistance to Congress throughout the legislative process on the needs and views of accreditors and their supporters;
- advised accreditors, educational institutions, and other supporters on the content and process of HEA reauthorization, and joined with them in presenting positions to Congress;
- formed alliances with other higher education associations to advocate the importance of private, voluntary accreditation; and
- furnished detailed analysis and status reports on accreditation issues to accreditors, educational institutions, and other organizations as reauthor-ization proceeded.
These activities provided the coordination and the focus necessary for the higher education community to achieve many of its goals in the HEA reauthorization on accreditation issues. The result is that we are well-positioned to provide effective representation for the accrediting community in future dealings with the federal government—a service that most CHEA members listed among their top priorities for the organization on the survey we conducted last year, the results of which we announced in June 1998.
Where do we go from here? With the amendments now signed into law, CHEA enters a new phase of its advocacy role. Over the coming months, we will meet with other associations and accrediting organizations to discuss the changes in HEA-98. We will coordinate advocacy efforts on behalf of voluntary accreditation to pursue favorable interpretations of the law. We will confer with the Department of Education officials responsible for administering the provisions of HEA-98. CHEA will use a variety of tools to carry out these tasks: special meetings, the CHEA home page, and targeted communications. (In fact, a longer report on HEA-98 already is available on the CHEA website at https://www.chea.org.)
Federal implementation of HEA-98 will begin with the revision of regulations. Experience suggests it will take two to three years to finish the job. HEA-98 expands "negotiated rule making," which Congress established in 1992 to assure greater constituent participation in the regulatory process. CHEA and its like-minded supporters will be active in negotiated rule making to insure that the gains made in the legislation are fully executed, not eroded.
The higher education community has come a long way toward regaining the confidence of Congress in the value of quality assurance through voluntary accreditation. HEA-98 demonstrates that we have turned the corner. Two related tasks remain before us: We must continue to work with the government to stress the valuable contributions of voluntary accreditation. And we must strengthen the accreditation process, augmenting its meritorious parts and reforming its shortcomings. If we succeed at both these tasks, we will better serve our students and preserve institutional autonomy. We are on the right track.
Judith S. Eaton