Senators Have Questions, but Dismiss “Delinkages”
In a wide-ranging dialogue, four U.S. Senators had many questions and observations about accreditation in their hearing. Senators across the ideological spectrum emphasized their support for institutional autonomy and their distaste for direct federal measurement of institutional quality. The overall impression was a strong interest in improving some aspects of the federal-accreditation linkage, but no support for ending it. In effect, these Senators signaled their intentions to build on the present system, to make it more competitive, to focus on outcomes measures, to enhance intellectual diversity and to sustain the autonomy of institutions.
On February 26, 2004, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) held a hearing on “Higher Education Accreditation: How Can the System Better Ensure Quality and Accountability?” HELP Chair Judd Gregg (R-NH) was joined by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY) in hearing from four witnesses.
Witnesses and Opening Testimony
Four witnesses each made five-minute summaries of their formal written statements. The summaries and biographic background are available on the Senate HELP Committee website at http://help.senate.gov/hearings/hearing/?id=12350265-ecc9-6d6f-621f-20b8ac949841.
Dr. Steven D. Crow, the executive director of the Higher Learning Commission, North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, emphasized the unique quasi-public role of accreditation. He outlined four new concerns that mark this reauthorization: institutional quality and student learning, transparency of the accreditation process, credit transfer and distance education. He noted and summarized specific proposals that have been offered to address each of these issues. He emphasized several caveats, stressing that the unique missions of institutions need to be understood and that the discretion of the institutions was key to successful improvement.
Dr. Jeffrey D. Wallin, the president of the American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE), said that American higher education is becoming ubiquitous, but serious questions have been raised about its quality and academic standards are falling. He said that regional accreditation does a good job of assuring the reliability of the processes and resources of educational institutions and weeding out diploma mills. But we should also build another system focused on quality assessment and high standards, which accreditors are not well equipped to do. He offered several suggestions.
Dr. Jerry L. Martin, the chair of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), said that accreditors have great power, but that they do not assure quality. Academic standards are falling and accreditation standards have little to do with learning. Grade inflation is a major problem. Congress should break the linkage between federal eligibility and accreditation, replacing it with a combination of federal and state enforcement.
Dr. Robert L. Potts, the president of the University of North Alabama (also representing the American Association of State College and Universities – AASCU), said the prior descriptions by Dr. Martin do not conform with his first-hand observations. The present system has worked well overall and wholesale changes or “delinking” would be harmful to institutions and the public interest. He stressed that the complex quality assurance system COULD be improved, and associated himself with a number of proposals from the higher education community (including AASCU) to do so. He urged the Congress to make small, targeted improvements.
Chair Gregg noted the differences in the witness’s viewpoints, and observed that the central issue before the committee was whether to change the system a little or a lot. Senator Alexander had a large number of observations and questions based on his experience as U.S. Secretary of Education and as both the governor and a public university president in Tennessee. He felt that it was important to encourage more choices and less monopoly in accreditation. He was most wary of any proposal to restrict the autonomy of institutions because that is a key to their success. The marketplace of our higher education system works very well. He cited grade inflation as a problem to be solved by campus presidents, not accreditors. He stressed that federal law directs accreditation to determine “sufficient quality,” a correctly minimal standard, to receive federal support. He rejected states as a useful determinant of eligibility because “no state would unaccredit itself.”
Senator Sessions also noted his direct experience with accreditation as a trustee of Huntington College, as Attorney General of Alabama, and more recently observing Auburn University. These experiences raised his concerns about difficulties in the system. He was troubled that accreditors seemed to go beyond their proper scope. Senator Clinton agreed with Senator Alexander that institutional autonomy and independence were precious. She opposed government standards on political correctness and direct government assessments of quality. She believes that the pipeline of opportunity to attend college still needs a lot of work, but higher education does a great job and Congress should not interfere with such an extraordinary product.
In a second round of questions, Chair Gregg asked about distance education. Senator Alexander asked another series of questions about expanding choices in accreditation and giving more power under law to the U.S. Secretary of Education. He asked if problem cases in accreditation might be referred to a special board or other body for review or resolution. At the conclusion, Senator Alexander encouraged the witnesses to also respond further with any other options for accreditation and for better ways to assure quality while preserving the autonomy of institutions.
The hearing demonstrated a strong wariness of federal action to directly intervene in academic affairs and little interest in radical changes in the current system of federal quality assurance depending on voluntary accreditation. On the negative side, one witness attacked the current system, saying accreditors do not do their jobs. Many anecdotes of alleged failures and missteps by accreditors were placed in the public record. Overall, it was a thorough airing of the successes and challenges to voluntary quality assurance that points the Senate in the direction of modest reforms.
A more extensive report on the February 26, 2004 hearing will be available on the
CHEA Website at www.chea.org under “Government Relations.”