Senate Bill 1642 and Accountability
The U.S. Senate bill (S. 1642) to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) was passed on July 24, 2007. HEA Update 39 described key accreditation provisions of the bill, especially as this relates to student achievement, transfer of credit and the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI).
This Update addresses the overall accountability footprint left by the Senate bill as this affects both the federal standards for recognition of accrediting organizations and some of the other accountability-related areas for institutions and programs.
Recognition Standards and Expanding Accountability
While there are a limited number of changes to the language of the recognition standards (Part G, Program Integrity) in the bill, the net impact on accreditors and their role in accountability as compared to current law is nonetheless significant. Accreditors are to enlarge their scope of scrutiny in a number of areas that are currently part of accreditation review, take on new areas of scrutiny and alter accreditation practice as well.
With regard to enlarging their scope of scrutiny, accreditors have additional responsibilities with regard to tracking distance learning students and providing more information to the public about accreditation actions.
With regard to new areas, accreditors, for the first time, have obligations with regard to transfer of credit. This includes monitoring to assure that institutions have transfer of credit policies, make these public and describe the criteria that are used in considering transfer requests. Accreditors would also be responsible for monitoring institutional growth.
Perhaps the new area of greatest impact is the role that the bill calls on accreditors to play in relation to federally required information that an institution or program provides to current and prospective students. First, the Senate bill requires that accreditors review this information as part of a site visit. This is not part of current law. Second, the amount of information required by the federal government in the new bill is considerably greater than the already extensive reporting required under current law.
Areas that accreditors would be obligated to review as a result of current law include, e.g., the information required under the Student Right To Know Act, tuition and financial aid data, information on services for disabled students and information required under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The Senate bill adds to this reporting and requires information in such areas as, e.g., file sharing and copyright infringement, transfer of credit and net price reporting.
Although a voluntary effort and not tied to accreditation, the University and College Accountability Network (UCAN) that is embedded in the College Opportunities On-Line (COOL) Website is a significant dimension of the accountability footprint. UCAN is a model for institutional reporting of basic information and would include over 20 items of information for which a college or university has available data. The reporting items include, e.g., mission, undergraduate enrollment broken out by attendance, race and sex, test scores, yearly tuition and fees, grant and loan assistance, transfer policies and campus safety. A number of the 20 items are part of the required information that institutions must provide for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.
With regard to altering their practices, accreditors are responsible for providing more due process in the course of accreditation reviews, especially as this relates to appeals. They are to give additional attention to religious mission.
Two other features of the bill are significant with regard to federal recognition standards. The bill does provide for some additional flexibility for accreditors in the all-important area of student achievement. While accreditors are still responsible for review of institutional success with regard to student achievement in relation to mission, this responsibility is described in less detail than current law. And, there is language to the effect that the Secretary of Education cannot promulgate additional regulations with regard to this area.
The bill also replaces NACIQI with a new body that will take on responsibility for federal recognition, establishing an Accreditation and Institutional Quality and Integrity Advisory Committee.
There are a number of other aspects of the bill that impinge on the operation of institutions and accrediting bodies. Although they do not constitute direct reporting obligations, they are part of the accountability footprint.
The bill contains a Sense of Congress with regard to protecting student speech and the free and open exchange of ideas. The issue of an academic bill of rights and student speech has been a feature of HEA deliberation going back to 2003.
The American Bar Association would be examined by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). This study would review the impact of accreditation requirements and other factors on law school costs and access, including the impact of such requirements on racial and ethnic minorities.
Two sections of the bill would impact data collection and available information. First, GAO is to study the employment of graduates and the type of work obtained, the relationship to a course of study and the feasibility of a national Website of graduates. Second, the bill calls for a pilot program to assist states in developing state-level postsecondary student data systems to generate more comprehensive and comparable data and to evaluate the effectiveness of institutional performance. The bill specifically prohibits a federal database.
The bill also provides for additional research into student achievement. The Secretary is authorized to award research grants to institutions, state agencies and accrediting organizations to develop tools to assist with evaluating learning, improving quality and developing models of effective practice.
The Senate bill leaves both accreditors and institutions with significant additional work and scrutiny. The Secretary of Education, in an August 3, 2007 letter to conferees on the House and Senate reconciliation bills, indicates that she has some concerns with S. 1642. The House has said that it will take up reauthorization after the August recess.