Congress in 2003: Proposals Await Final Action

Publication Number 5 January 13, 2004

Congress will begin this year with all of the 2003 proposals regarding accreditation still pending. Both houses have announced plans to complete the Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization in the first half of 2004. But there is some speculation that the final work will follow the November elections and be completed in 2005. While the timing is unknown, it is certain that Congress will start fast on HEA and make an early push for completion. This Update # 5 will summarize the major Congressional HEA proposals in accreditation for 2003, along with some of the CHEA activities relating to them.

Washington Alphabet Soup: The Three A's, and NCLB

Congress introduced more than a dozen bills that could, if enacted into law, have an impact on the federal role regarding quality assurance. Most have little chance of passage in their introduced form. None will be enacted separately from the omnibus HEA amendments that will extend and refine the present federal laws for student financial aid and a host of other higher education programs that support and regulate federal activities in higher education.

Most of these proposals focused on three themes (dubbed the Three A's) of Access, Affordability and Accountability. The House Republicans dominated the process thus far, demonstrating impressive unity in moving their ideas through the early legislative process. There were also Democratic initiatives in both houses, some to counter GOP proposals and others with independent ideas.

When we asked Republicans on the Hill and in the Bush Administration what they wanted out of the new HEA, they usually responded that they wanted to apply the same principles that undergird the 2001 federal law for elementary and secondary education: "No Child Left Behind." NCLB is a centerpiece of President Bush's domestic agenda for his first term. It mandates state-administered outcome tests as the means of raising academic standards. Democrats largely supported the new law, and have focused their complaint about NCLB toward program funding levels they say are too low.

The translation of NCLB to higher education produces the aforementioned Three A's: Access, Affordability and Accountability. It is unclear if the advocates of this approach have taken sufficient recognition of the difference in governance, structure and educational objective between the higher and "lower" sectors of the United States education systems. For accreditation, distance education is labeled in Congress as an access issue, transfer of credits is labeled an affordability issue (because it avoids students paying twice for the "same" course), and the measurement of student learning outcomes and the public disclosure of accreditation results are labeled accountability issues. This trichotomy designates the part of the overall HEA package that the Congress will use to address each issue.

Distance Education

Members of both parties in the House and the Senate have indicated their interest in expanding federal support for more and different types of distance education programs. Some controversial proposals envision massive expansions with major shifts in federal student aid resources. The accreditation issues center on quality assurance in the new and evolving paradigm of electronic delivery systems. The basic question is assuring program quality and accountability where traditional characteristics of bricks and mortar classrooms and face-to-face faculty contact with students are lacking. Several proposals have been made to add new and additional accreditation standards for distance education programs supported by federal student financial aid.

CHEA's position is that accreditors can and do need to apply different approaches to assuring quality in distance education, but that the same accreditation standards should apply regardless of the delivery system. In the last decade, accreditors have clearly and forcefully demonstrated their ability to assess distance education. These methods should be relied upon without introducing new and additional standards for distance education. More detail on distance education proposals was provided in Update #3 (December 3, 2003) and is available on our Website.

Transfer of Credits

CHEA has long advocated changes in campus practices to improve the ease and the ability of students to transfer similar credits from one institution to another. However, the basic right of an institution to determine what courses taken elsewhere it will accept should not be limited by any federal law or rule. This right goes to the heart of academic freedom and institutional autonomy: who teaches what to whom. The keystone of the CHEA policy is that no institution should refuse to consider a transfer request solely because the prior institution is accredited by a different federally recognized accreditation organization.

he House Republican proposal starts with this CHEA idea, but adds several other provisions that directly restrain institutional authority by mandating only certain factors may be considered in the decision of an institution whether it will accept credits earned at another institution. The penalty for going outside this proposed rule would be loss of student financial aid for the entire institution. The proposal, contained in HR 3311 by Congressman McKeon (R-CA) and others, also demands onerous new reporting requirements for institutions and separate reviews and approvals by accreditors of institutional policies and practices on transfers. When introduced in mid-October 2003, the transfer provisions generated almost as much opposition as the better publicized controls on college costs, also proposed by Mr. McKeon in the same bill. Opposition by accreditors is not universal, however. On November 26, the Council of Recognized National Accrediting Agencies (CRNAA) wrote Chair McKeon endorsing his proposal. CRNAA is a group of seven agencies that accredit mostly for profit educational and training institutions, which number 3100 nationally and serve four million students.

Some movement toward a new federal provision on credit transfers is expected before the HEA work in completed. But the Congressional proposals have been seen by most higher education institutions and associations as so extreme as to chill the dialogue, at least for the last two months. A fuller exposition on transfers of credit issues regarding accreditation is planned for an upcoming issue of Update.


While no major bills are yet introduced, the House GOP leadership, along with Bush Administration spokespersons, has repeatedly pointed to greater accountability as their primary HEA goal for accreditation. They suggest more attention to student learning outcomes, quantified measurements, and expanded public disclosure of accreditation results. When Congressional proposals are introduced as bills, a future issue of Update will explain them.

CHEA has and will support reforms in the means of accountability. At the same time, we maintain that these reforms must reflect the primacy of mission-based institutional goals and the academic freedom of institutions to determine quality through peer-reviewed and voluntary accreditation.

CHEA does not want simplistic numerical goals and additional federalization of the accreditation process. CHEA does not want educators to lose the use of a wide range of factors and methods to determine quality of institutions and programs based on their unique mission and the educational goals of their student body. Some of the concepts and observations coming from the Hill and the Administration about academic quality, as well as proposals in other areas (like federal tuition controls), suggest HEA provisions that will end the half century of federal policies based on self-regulation of quality education.

Finally, the most radical proposal in accreditation was introduced early in 2003 by Congressman Petri (R-WI), who has a long interest in higher education. This proposal would simply break the linkage between accreditation and eligibility for federal programs under the entire HEA. As the link is broken, the whole federal rulebook for accreditation would likewise disappear. However, the vacuum for quality assurance created by this proposal is troublesome. And most observers think that such a vacuum would be rapidly filled by a whole new set of federal rules, or even federal quality inspectors visiting every college in the land. To date, no other member in either the House or the Senate has embraced the Petri proposal, and the House Committee on Education seems prepared to ignore it. But the proposal to break the link puts in stark relief the nature of the present public-private partnership in quality assurance, and what our world could look like without it.

The CHEA Agenda for HEA Reauthorization

In May of 2003, the CHEA Board of Directors approved an agenda for HEA. It states our general premise that HEA should build upon the partnership, and that six goals for accreditation and accountability reform should be sought in this reauthorization. The full document is available on the CHEA website at Higher Education Reauthorization—2003. All of the issues discussed above are included in the CHEA Agenda, and a framework for strengthening the partnership and reform of the means of accountability in accreditation is presented. As the Congress moves ahead, we will continue to press our agenda. CHEA and others will use our agenda to guide our support or opposition to specific proposals.