Standards may include student outcomes, but should the government or accrediting agencies implement the change?
By Charles Dervarics
As part of its reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Congress is grappling with potential changes to one of the most vexing issues facing colleges that enroll a large number of low-income students: accreditation.
U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has called for changes that would base accreditation on outcomes such as graduation rates and student achievement. Congress, in turn, has responded with calls for the department to wait until it can address the issue through the long-delayed HEA reauthorization.
For those who focus on the needs of at-risk students, a go-slow approach may be best — particularly if reformers take time to examine the challenges facing different types of higher education institutions.
“If you compare the University of Texas at Austin to Houston Community College, they’re going to look very different,” says Dr. Saran Donahoo, an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University who specializes in higher education administration and
An open-enrollment institution or any other college that focuses heavily on low-income students simply has different needs and priorities than a traditional four-year flagship research institution. “You just aren’t able to do the same things,” Donahoo says.
In addition, there often is misunderstanding about what to expect from institutions that focus on low-income students. “Once you serve larger numbers of students, [accreditors] expect you to offer everything a flagship institution has to offer,” she says.
But should prime responsibility for changing accreditation go to the federal government or to colleges and universities? Accrediting groups say the latter is better equipped to make these decisions.
“The Department of Education and the council both agree that student outcomes need to be included. We just have a difference about how to get there,” says Richard Porter, the spokesman for the Council for Higher Education Accreditation in Washington.
Council leaders were particularly concerned with Education Department recommendations earlier this year that would amount to “federalizing accreditation,” CHEA president Judith S. Eaton said in a recent statement.
Fear that accreditors may end up in the role of government contractor “is one of the concerns,” adds Dr. Belle Wheelan, president of the Commission on Colleges at the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, an accrediting body for colleges in Southern states.
“I’m sure there is a federal role in accreditation,” she says, but it should not be to set prescriptive standards on how to evaluate institutions. Yet Wheelan says colleges and the accreditation community are open to general guidelines and suggestions from Washington.
“You identify the type of information you think is important, and institutions will find a way to do it,” she says.
Accrediting organizations also have the capacity to adapt to institutional needs, says Wheelan. As an example, she cites SACS’ relationship with historically Black colleges and universities. Some Black colleges have had their share of challenges meeting accreditation, and Donahoo’s research showed that between 1996 and 2005 they represented 25 percent of all colleges facing sanctions.
But relations between HBCUs and accrediting organizations have improved recently. Shortly after Wheelan joined SACS, she brought HBCU leaders together to discuss their concerns. These talks led to the appointment of more Black college officials to accreditation teams visiting college campuses, she says. It also spurred the development of workshops to help small private institutions before they face a challenge to their accreditation.
“We’ve been more proactive rather than reactive,” Wheelan says.
Others agree that accrediting organizations should listen to their constituents and show flexibility in dealing with colleges. Donahoo suggests that accrediting agencies adopt tiered minimum standards based on the specific missions of individual colleges. But she says federal officials may lack the expertise to establish such criteria in detail.
“We should be careful and cautious about making this a quantitative exercise,” she says.
In its new HEA reauthorization bill, the Senate seems to be taking at least some of that advice. The bill would require accreditors to make sure that colleges use empirical evidence and external indicators “as appropriate” to report on student retention, course completion and graduation rates.
Four-year institutions also would report on graduates who enroll in post-baccalaureate institutions, while career and technical programs would provide data on job placement rates for students, the bill states.
But the legislation also notes that accreditors may judge success based on “different standards for different institutions.”
That bill has cleared the Senate’s education panel and is now headed to the Senate floor. The U.S. House of Representatives has not yet approved a comprehensive HEA renewal bill.
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