Congress Reauthorizes the Higher Education Act

Publication Number 44 August 1, 2008

The votes to reauthorize the Higher Education Act took place in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate on Thursday, July 31, 2008. The “Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008” brings together House Bill 4137 and Senate Bill 1642, passed in 2007 and earlier in 2008. The new bill is the product of the Conference Report approved by a House-Senate conference committee on July 29. It will now be sent to the President for signature.

As has been noted in many places, the bill has been in the making for the past five years, is voluminous (1,150 pages), covers an extensive array of quite different issues and, in many ways, fundamentally alters the relationship between higher education and the federal government. While a number of the provisions reflect the work of CHEA and others to minimize federal intrusiveness, we would, in an ideal world, prefer not have some of these provisions at all.

This Update provides summary information on the major accreditation provisions of the newly approved bill. More detailed information and analysis will be available in a September Update. CHEA has been monitoring 21 accreditation issues and their implications for self-regulation and higher education. We mention 10 of the most important issues here.

The bill assures, as CHEA has sought and strongly supported, that judgments about student achievementremain in the hands of institutions and are not shifted to the federal government through the U.S. Department of Education’s (USDE) role in recognizing accrediting organizations. To the contrary, there is a provision in the bill that prohibits the Secretary of Education from regulating student achievement.

The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) will be restructured, shifting the appointing authority that had been vested solely in the Secretary to a triumvirate of the Secretary, the House and the Senate. The membership of the committee will expand from 15 to 18 and the terms of appointment will increase from three to six years. The terms of the current committee members end on the date of enactment of the bill; new members cannot be appointed until January 31, 2009. CHEA worked for this restructuring, believing that it can enhance the balance and responsiveness of the committee going forward.

With regard to transfer of credit, the bill requires accrediting organizations to confirm that institutions publicly disclose their transfer of credit policies and criteria for judging transfer. It also includes language (“Rule of Construction”) prohibiting the Secretary or NACIQI to dictate specific policies with respect to transfer of credit. The bill’s provisions are less problematic than others that were suggested, a result consistently sought by CHEA.

The bill requires accrediting organizations to apply standards that respect the stated mission of institutions, including religious mission.

The bill alters the due process practices that accrediting organizations must follow in the course of an accreditation review. Accreditors are now required to:

  • Provide an opportunity for a written response from institutions that may be subject to negative or adverse actions.
  • Assure that any action is based only on documented policy, practice or precedent.
  • Assure that the accreditation appeal body is separate from the initial body making accreditation decisions and is subject to a conflict of interest policy.

The bill also alters the appeals practices of accrediting organizations by requiring that accreditors provide an opportunity for institutions to put forward new evidence during an appeal process as long as it relates to the institution’s financial condition.

The bill provides, for the first time, a federal definition of “diploma mill” as “…an entity that offers, for a fee, degrees, diplomas, or certificates, that may be used to represent to the general public that the individual possessing such a degree, diploma, or certificate has completed a program of postsecondary education or training and requires such individual to complete little or no education or coursework to obtain such degree, diploma, or certificate; and lacks accreditation by an accrediting agency or association that is recognized as an accrediting agency or association of institutions of higher education…by the Secretary…or a federal agency, State government, or other organization or association that recognizes accrediting agencies or associations.” CHEA worked hard to establish a federal definition, believing that this will strengthen ongoing efforts to eliminate bogus providers of higher education.

As with many federal policy issues, the bill is as important for what it does not do as well as what it affirms. In all of these cases, CHEA put forth considerable effort here, especially to eliminate the disclosure and ombudsman language.

The bill does not require accrediting organizations to:

  • Review and monitor the information that institutions are required to report to the federal government (“federally required disclosures”), thereby removing accreditors from carrying out a government function rather than a quality review function.
  • Have separate standards for accreditation of distance education programs. Institutions are required, however, to establish that a student registered for a distance education course is the same student who completes and receives credit for that course. The bill also permits an accrediting organization to expand its scope to include distance education upon written notification (not approval) to the Secretary.

The bill does not contain a provision to establish an “Office of Accreditation Ombudsman” within USDE. This office would have been charged with review and judgments about complaints and concerns related to accreditation from a variety of constituencies, including the public.

Please look for our next Update and additional details on the new legislation.