Congress Adjourns (Finally)

Publication Number 4 December 23, 2003

Having clocked 1,454 hours in formal floor session and filled 16,215 pages in the Congressional Record, the House of Representatives ended its work for 2003 on December 8, 2003. House members did not complete final action on the FY 2004 budget (already well into its third month). Nor did they complete the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). The spending bills will be completed in the first ten days of the new session on Congress that begins January 20, 2004. Outlook for the timing and content of the new HEA law is not so clear.

The House did a lot of work on HEA this year, while the Senate followed its announced plan of addressing other education issues and taking up HEA in 2004. Most observers on and off the Hill speculate that the Congress will either complete HEA in the first half of 2004 (before the party conventions this summer) or hold off final HEA action until 2005. Either way, late January 2004 will see a push in both houses to move HEA legislation. This issue number 4 of HEA Update will detail some parallel developments outside the Congress. Our first 2004 issue will summarize all the Congressional work in the past year, followed by a series of special reports on major HEA accreditation topics: credit transfers, student learning outcomes and disclosure of accreditation results.

NACIQI Meeting

As Congress finished up, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) held its semi-annual meeting in Washington on December 8 and 9, 2003. Under the leadership of its chair, Robert Andringa, the Committee devoted considerable attention to HEA deliberations, as Bob is a former senior staff member with the House education committee. In June 2003, Bob and several other members of the NACIQI made suggestions to the House education committee on HEA reforms for accreditation.

The Advisory Committee had a relatively light agenda of routine reports from nine organizations and invited CHEA President Judith Eaton to discuss HEA reauthorization and the CHEA policy perspectives on pending proposals. In his introduction, Bob remarked that the Advisory Committee thinks of CHEA as a sister organization and works very closely with CHEA on HEA and other issues.

Judith Eaton described CHEA and its recognition process, comparing and contrasting it to the NACIQI recognition activities. Both serve the public interest, but in different ways. NACIQI operates under federal law, advising the U.S. Secretary of Education on the recognition of accreditors. The emphasis is on meeting federal requirements. CHEA recognition emerges from higher education's longstanding commitment to strive for academic excellence through self regulation. Thus, CHEA places greater emphasis on academic quality, on accountability and improvement, and on due process and continuous reassessment of accreditation practices. Together, the U.S. recognition and the CHEA recognition form a sound and successful public-private partnership to assure both public interest and quality standards in higher education. The two recognitions verify and give public sanction to the underlying work of thousands of volunteer educators supporting peer-based accreditation at programs and institutions that are each seeking their own excellence. Eaton observed that HEA reauthorization should recognize and build upon this successful partnership that has demonstrated its ability to meet these important goals without direct governmental control over academic issues. The prepared summary of the Eaton remarks and our HEA Agenda are available on our Website, here’s a direct link to the document: CHEA Presentation to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity.

This basic foundation leads naturally to the CHEA Reauthorization Agenda which Eaton summarized. CHEA seeks reforms in the means of accountability of higher education and accreditation, based on reaffirmation of the basic structure of the partnership. CHEA advocates additional steps in student learning outcomes, distance learning, transfers of credit and information to the public, while maintaining the primacy of institutional mission and institutional control over academic decisions. In this vein, CHEA discourages federal initiatives that weaken higher education and academic quality, or that will diminish the accreditation – federal government relationship.

The Advisory Committee was very supportive of the CHEA approach. They discussed several HEA issues, and came back to the HEA topic on their second day with a panel of accrediting organizations: Cynthia Davenport of the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors (ASPA), Sandra Elman of the Council for Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC) and Roger Williams of the Council of Recognized National Accrediting Agencies (CRNAA). Advisory Committee Chairman Andringa raised several questions on HEA accreditation issues posed to him and his committee by the congressional staff working on the HEA bills. The issues included changes in accreditation since 1998 (the last HEA revisions), affordability, state roles, credit transfers and transparency of the accreditation process. The chair noted that the transcript of their two-day deliberations will be shared with the congressional staff.

The GAO Study on Quality Assurance in Distance Education

The General Accounting Office (GAO) is a branch of the Congress that carries out reviews and audits of federal activities, on specific requests of members or committees of the Congress. Since 2001, GAO officials have been reviewing quality assurance in distance education, and the role and practices of accreditation organizations in their reviews of the distance education activities of institutions seeking accreditation or renewal. GAO contacted CHEA in December 2003 and asked to visit CHEA as a final stage of their field work and report writing. GAO anticipates release of their report on accreditation and distance education in late February, 2004. GAO officials had previously conducted extensive visits with one national and six regional accreditors, and also had met with U.S. Department of Education officials.

CHEA senior leadership met with two GAO officials on December 10 in a wide-ranging, two-hour discussion. We provided them with the new CHEA policy paper on student learning outcomes. In our comments to the officials, we put special emphasis on reducing government control over institutions and the accreditation process, and how federal regulation can exceed the statutory authority in the HEA. We urged that their report recognize that institutions had to be free to recognize quality in the context of their mission and their student body. We all await the report with great interest, as its source and timing could have an impact on the legislative deliberations on distance education in the HEA.

U.S. Trade Representative

The U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) is a cabinet level office charged with negotiating trade agreements with other countries. This includes negotiations with the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) as well as a number of multi-lateral agreements, such as NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. In the international trade domain, higher education and accreditation are considered "services." They are included in the current GATS negotiations, as are intellectual property, financial services and communication services.

CHEA and the American Council on Education (ACE) have been working with USTR for the past two years to assure that the GATS negotiations do not diminish the freedom of our colleges and universities in key areas such as setting admission standards, determining tuition and establishing academic standards. The USTR negotiations should not compromise the freedom of accrediting organizations to set candidacy, eligibility or accreditation standards. The negotiations need to take into account the complex, decentralized nature of U.S. higher education and accreditation. At least to date, the U.S. position as negotiated through USTR does reflect these acknowledgments. Given the complexities of both international trade agreements and our domestic higher education and accreditation governance, our vigilance is needed.

On December 10, 2003, Judith Eaton and David Ward, president of ACE, met with the newly appointed officials at USTR who have direct responsibility for negotiations on services and investments: James Mendenhall and Christopher Melly. The meeting laid a foundation for continuing the dialogue and consultation among CHEA, ACE and USTR about the issues and concerns of importance to higher education and accreditation. We will keep you informed as the GATS negotiations continue into 2004.