McKeon Proposes Accreditation Compromises in HR 609

Publication Number 23 July 18, 2005

One day before his House subcommittee began consideration of HR 609, the major proposed legislation for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) authored by Chairman “Buck” McKeon (R-CA), Mr. McKeon offered significant modifications to accreditation and other provisions of the bill. On July 12, the text of a “Chairman’s Substitute” was released to the public in anticipation of the first formal legislative consideration on July 13 of the reauthorization legislation by the House Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness.

McKeon’s substitute contains many revisions in his original HR 609 bill, which he sponsored with committee chairman, John Boehner (R-OH). The substitute document runs almost 300 pages of legislative language to modify and extend current law. It is a common legislative practice for a chairman to propose his own substitute for a major bill immediately before markup. This HEA Update # 23 will address only those provisions that relate to accreditation. We suggest that you look to other national associations for their analysis of the other important parts of the HEA legislation.

Subcommittee Adopts Compromises on Accreditation Provisions

The subcommittee first adopted the McKeon substitute that fully replaces the original HR 609. Thus, all of the McKeon proposals are now in the amended bill. The subcommittee completed its work on the bill on July 14 after two days and nine hours of meetings that included consideration of more than forty proposed amendments. Only one amendment related to accreditation was offered and it failed. Rep. Tim Bishop’s (D-NY) attempt to further modify the new transfer of credit provisions lost on a party-line vote of 14-18. The final subcommittee vote on the bill was 18 ayes, all from Republicans, and 15 nays, all from Democrats. This indicates continued partisan division on HR 609. The next legislative step is for the full Committee on Education and the Workforce to consider the modified bill, which could occur as soon as the week of July 18.

Proposed Changes in Federal Accreditation Law

Since early 2003, the House Republicans have been proposing a series of significant changes in the accreditation provisions in the HEA. In May 2003, CHEA released its Reauthorization Agenda calling for a reaffirmation of the basic relationship of accreditation and the federal government and some reforms in the accountability of accreditation to meet changing public expectations. CHEA proposed changes in the areas of student achievement, distance education, transfer of credit and public information. HR 609 proposed changes in all these areas as well, but went too far in the view of CHEA, its member institutions, other higher education associations and some accreditors. These groups sought modifications to 609 and the McKeon substitute has adopted most of these modifications in several key areas. While the subcommittee markup of July 13-14 is only a first legislative step, the adoption by the McKeon Subcommittee of some of the compromises proposed by CHEA, other higher education associations and some accreditors is a positive development when compared to the original provisions for accreditation of HR 609. More work needs to be done, but these improvements demonstrate that our advocacy with Congress has been influential thus far in the reauthorization deliberations.

The Accreditation Provisions

The net impact of the McKeon substitute is a significant improvement over HR 609 in that there are fewer reporting requirements for institutions, fewer federal requirements of accreditors and less opportunity for government intervention in academic decisionmaking. CHEA will provide more detailed analysis of the accreditation-related provisions in later HEA Updates. Briefly, the accreditation revisions adopted by the subcommittee are:

  • Student Achievement: Current law contains a standard for recognition of accrediting organizations that calls for examination of institution or program success with regard to student achievement using various forms of evidence and taking mission into account. HR 609 kept current law and added a requirement that institutions publish learning objectives for all programs. Institutions were also to provide a summary of student learning outcomes for full-time undergraduates and completion rates for certificate- and degree-seeking students. The substitute bill passed by the subcommittee removed the requirement to publish learning objectives. The summary of learning outcomes remains.
  • Distance Education: Current law allows accreditors to review distance learning, provided that the accreditor has had adequate experience in this area. HR 609 placed a good many additional requirements on accreditors. There was a call for separate accreditation standards for distance and site-based instruction. Distance learning had to be “comparable” to site-based learning. Accreditors were also to oversee the growth of distance learning and to assure that institutions have means to readily affirm that a distance learning student who registers for a course is the same student who completes the work. The substitute bill passed by the subcommittee eliminated the call for separate standards and “comparability.” The provisions on growth and student identification remain.
  • Credit Transfer: Current law is mostly silent on transfer of credit, with the exception of a call for a transfer study by the Department of Education. HR 609 originally had a good deal to say about transfer. It required that institutions have transfer policies that are publicly available. These policies were to include the “CHEA Transfer Principle” – that institutions are not to refuse to consider transfer requests based solely on the accredited status of an institution. HR 609 originally required that institutions have “objective criteria” for transfer, that institutions examine “transfer proficiency” and that institutions calculate a “transfer rate.” The McKeon substitute does away with “objective criteria,” “transfer proficiency” and transfer rate calculation. Although the substitute calls on institutions to provide information on percentage of credits transferred, there is a chance that this requirement may be dropped.
  • Public Information: Current law already has limited disclosure requirements for accreditors, primarily confined to final decisions on accreditation status and, in the case of termination or denial of accreditation, reasons for the actions. The original HR 609 had extensive new public disclosure requirements on accreditation. Accreditors were to report on “any” or “significant” findings in all accreditation reviews – whatever the outcome. Accreditors were to provide information to the public about individual members of evaluation teams and how teams were selected, trained and evaluated. Accrediting organizations were to have codes of conduct for their commissions. Finally, accreditors were to assure that institutions provide information to the public on a 10-point “College Consumer Profile.”

    The substitute bill eliminates the call for reporting on “any” or “significant” findings and returns to current law for reporting on denial or termination of accreditation, although public information is now required for all final adverse actions and not limited only to public requests. The institutional comments requirement on final adverse actions is maintained, as in the current law. The requirement shifts from a passive one (upon request) to an active obligation on accreditors when they take a final and adverse accreditation action. Information on evaluation teams is to be provided for the prior calendar year and need not be institution-specific. The substitute contains language about “accreditation responsibilities of such individuals” rather than a “code of conduct.” The call for information on selection, training and education of teams as well as the College Consumer Profile in 609 remain.

  • Other provisions: The McKeon substitute modifies the proposed addition of institutional “governance” to the federal recognition standards for accreditors in 609, narrowing the focus to “board governance” for institutional accreditors.

    The McKeon substitute alters current HEA law on “due process” (procedural fairness) in accreditation decisions. HR 609 did not address due process issues. The McKeon substitute modifies the current federal recognition standards through enumeration of key due process provisions: notice, opportunity to be heard, a hearing on the record and presence of an attorney. And, the substitute calls for an appeals process that guarantees that those involved in an initial accreditation decision cannot participate in an appeal. At this time, it is unclear whether the new due process provisions refer to decisions taken at the level of initial decision of the accreditation status of an institution or program or is confined to the appeals level.

    The HR 609 provision to allow states to become federally recognized accreditors (eliminated in 1992) is maintained. Two studies in HR 609, one on transfer of credit and another on states’ best practices in assessing undergraduate student learning, are retained.

    Although not strictly an accreditation issue, the “Academic Bill of Rights” has been modified and adopted based on the compromise announced on June 23 by Chairman Boehner as described in HEA Update # 22.

Next Steps

The next step in the House is consideration of the modified HR 609 by the full Committee on Education and the Workforce, which is presently expected before the end of the month. The Senate has not yet acted on its announced plan to move its version of a reauthorization bill in July. At the end of July, Congress goes in recess until after Labor Day. The next steps for CHEA are to inform and advise our institutions, accreditors and other associations on the legislative developments, and to analyze the results thus far. CHEA will continue its work with the Congress and the higher education community on accreditation issues in the HEA reauthorization.