Congressional Recess–not Adjournment

Publication Number 3 December 2, 2003

Before recessing for Thanksgiving, Congress passed the Medicare bill, but lawmakers continue to struggle over appropriations and energy legislation and will return the week of December 8 to take these up. The pre-Thanksgiving flurry of activity did not include action on the bills and issues that CHEA is monitoring: the Cole bill (HR 3039), the Andrews/Kildee bill (HR 2913) and the Enzi bill (S 1203) that would place additional federal controls on assuring quality in distance learning and the McKeon bill (HR 3311) that would introduce federal controls in transfer of credit decisions in part through requiring additional scrutiny of institutions and programs by accrediting organizations. And, anticipated legislation that addresses accreditation and student learning outcomes and information to the public has yet to materialize.

Regardless of the adjournment date, it is not too soon to assess what was done regarding accreditation in the Higher Education Act (HEA) during 2003. Beginning with this issue, Update will provide an overall assessment of the accreditation legislation for the year and the prospects for 2004. This will include a series of summaries–one per Update–of the major accreditation issues. This Update focuses on accreditation and distance learning.

Distance Education and Accreditation

In the pending HEA considerations, the fundamental relationship between distance education and accreditation springs from the viewpoint that new and electronic means of delivery demand special and closer scrutiny to assure quality. CHEA believes that this is a useful concept, but that it can be easily misapplied to require unneeded scrutiny and dysfunctional reviews of mainstream programs.

In the 1998 reauthorization, CHEA and others convinced the Congress to use the same standards for accreditation of distance education as for other delivery modes. Since that time, distance education expansion has accelerated. Congress is anxious to broaden the reach of federal programs because current provisions of the HEA bar some types of distance education from eligibility for federal student aid programs. At a time when expanding demand for student aid is growing far faster than federal funds for these programs, adding new types of participants is controversial. CHEA policy is that Congress will decide how much to expand student assistance programs to new distance education users, but reliance on accreditation for quality assurance is vital.

Many in Congress like the idea of updating HEA programs to assist expanded distance education programs, but others urge caution. Experienced hands remember the "bad old days" of high defaults and wide-spread consumer fraud in student aid programs under HEA. This latter group sometimes wants to "get tough" by adding additional requirements for the examination and approval by accreditors of ALL distance education programs.

A flawed approach...

One approach to accreditation and distance education was offered by Senator Enzi in the Senate, with a similar House version from two Democratic Congressmen, Robert Andrews and Dale Kildee. These bills require a whole new set of accreditation standards - over and above the ten elements already in law - for accreditors to review and approve distance education programs. One example is that the Andrews/Kildee bill demands that accreditors examine and approve "the preparation of students and faculty to participate in distance education," as well as "the quality and frequency of [their] interaction."

While CHEA generally supports the reliance on accreditation to assure quality in federal programs, we are opposed to the approach of additional standards. Accreditors have successfully developed and demonstrated an ability to evaluate distance education programs over the last decade. Adding a whole new set of mandated federal standards would unduly complicate the accreditation process, without adding meaningful new quality assurance.

Better, but still problematic...

The House Republicans put forward their proposal for expanded distance education in early September, when Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma and thirteen other Republicans introduced HR 3039. CHEA generally supports the thrust of the accreditation provisions of this bill, as it states that distance education should use the same accreditation standards as other forms. But HR 3039 goes on, in a self-contradictory manner, to add two new and additional standards for distance education. The effect of these additional standards, notwithstanding the contradictory provisions, would be for accreditors to re-examine all programs that might have distance education elements to see if they meet the new standards.

As the line between "distance" and "mainstream" programs blurs, this becomes more problematical. HR 3039 defines "distance education" to include any program that uses Websites or e-mail as part of a course. Applying this new definition to the HEA would mean that most mainstream courses on many campuses become "distance education" programs. If the Congress amends the HEA to require special and additional scrutiny by accreditors of all distance education programs as a condition of eligibility for federal student aid support, a massive review of most campuses would be required to maintain eligibility. CHEA views this as an unintended consequence, has urged the Committee to rectify the problem with a technical amendment, and provided technical assistance to do so.

More work needed.

Even if the Committee rectifies the technical problem to avoid a massive review of all existing, eligible programs, the fundamental flaw persists. Separate and additional standards for accreditors to measure distance education would still be unwise, cause additional work without much benefit, and would intrude on institutional and accreditor practices far beyond the appropriate federal role in quality assurance. CHEA and others will work with the Congress toward a useful and appropriate accreditation provision in distance education.