Higher Education Reauthorization: A Senate Bill Introduced and Passed

Publication Number 38 June 22, 2007

There has been considerable activity during the past week in Congress and at the Department of Education on higher education and accreditation issues. What follows is a summary of the state of play as of June 22, 2007. HEA Update will continue to keep you informed as events unfold.

On Wednesday, June 20, 2007, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) passed a 534-page bill (S. 1642) reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA). The bill was publicly available on Monday, June 18 and would extend authority for the federal government's higher education programs for five years. The HELP Committee hopes to move HEA to the Senate floor in July.

S. 1642 is a complex piece of legislation. Key elements of the bill for accreditation are:

(Student Achievement) Accrediting organizations are to examine institutional success with regard to student achievement in relation to institutional mission. The standards may vary by institution, although the accreditors are to determine "expected levels of student achievement" in ways that may include, "as appropriate," (1) the use of "empirical evidence" and "external indicators" with respect to student retention, (2) course and program completion and graduation, (3) state licensure, (4) job placement and enrollment of students in graduate programs and (5) other performance information selected by the institution. (Transfer of Credit) Accrediting organizations are to review institutions to assure that schools (1) have a transfer of credit policy, (2) make this policy public and (3) disclose whether they deny the transfer of a student's academic credits based solely on the accreditation status of the institution from which the student is transferring. (Due Process) Accrediting organizations would be required to adopt additional due process practices, providing (1) additional specifics about the requirements and deficiencies for the institution seeking an appeal of an accreditation decision, (2) an opportunity for an institution to respond in writing and (3) an opportunity to request, in writing, an appeal of any adverse action, including placement on probation. (Distance Learning) Accrediting organizations need not have separate standards to assess quality for distance education programs. However, accreditors are required to monitor course completion. (Federally Required Information) As part of the accreditation site review, accrediting organizations are to review any federally required information that an institution must provide to current or prospective students. (Religious Mission) Accrediting organizations are to enforce standards in a way that respects the stated mission of an institution, including religious mission.

The Senate bill also contains major changes with regard to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) that reviews and recommends recognition for accrediting organizations to the Secretary of Education. Please see below.

In general, the Senate bill would put into federal statute much of what the Department of Education sought to accomplish in recent months through the negotiated rulemaking process on accreditation.

HELP Committee Chair Edward Kennedy's staff, Washington higher education associations and accrediting organizations are scheduled to meet on June 27, 2007 to discuss the accreditation provisions in S. 1642. Senator Michael Enzi (R-WY) and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) both have said that they will continue to work to change the bill.

The House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor is likely to introduce its version of higher education reauthorization late this summer.

National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity

Section 105 of S. 1642 to reauthorize the Higher Education Act replaces NACIQI with a new Accreditation and Institutional Quality and Integrity Advisory Committee. Whereas the 15 members of the current NACIQI are appointed by the Secretary of Education, the proposed committee would be made up of five members appointed by the Secretary, five members appointed by the the Senate and five members appointed by the House. In addition, some of the duties of the committee would shift as well. If S. 1642 is enacted, NACIQI will cease to exist 90 days after the law takes effect, to be replaced by the new committee.

Status of Negotiated Rulemaking on Accreditation

In a letter to Senator Lamar Alexander, Secretary of Education Spellings announced that the Department of Education will not publish proposed regulations regarding accreditation at this time. Senator Alexander released this letter during the HELP Committee markup on June 20, 2007. The letter was sent after Senator Alexander's floor statement on May 24 and after 18 members of the Committee sent a letter to the Secretary, asking her not to issue new regulations until Congress renews the HEA. In her letter, the Secretary states that the Department will work with the Senate to finalize statutory language in the HEA concerning accreditation.

The Senate Appropriations Committee marked up its version of the 2008 appropriations bill for Labor, Heath and Human Services and Education agencies on June 21, 2007. CHEA has been informed that it contains restrictions on the Department from implementing the acreditation negotiated rulemaking rules, restrictions that are similar to those that House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-WI) placed in the House Labor, Education and Health and Human Services appropriations bill.

Higher Education Regional Summits

CHEA participated in the Boston Regional Summit on June 14, one of the five meetings held by the Department in June as a follow-up to the National Summit held in March 2007. During the meeting, the Department announced that it would schedule another national summit in Washington, DC and would hold additional regional summits during the 2007–2008 academic year. We will share details of this plan as they become available.