The initial session of negotiated rulemaking on the topic of Accreditation and Innovation was completed at the Department of Education’s Headquarters in Washington, D.C. this week. What was scheduled to be a three-day session, shrunk to just one-and-a-half days due to a snowstorm that hit the Capital on Monday.
The committee of negotiators dealt with the usual preliminary matters, such as hearing petitions to expand the panel by sitting nominees representing State Attorney General’s (Maryland’s Chris Madaio) and State Higher Education Agencies (SHEEO’s David Tandberg) as well as agreeing to protocols governing how the panel would move forward. Ultimately, David Tandberg was chosen by unanimous consent to represent State governments and the panel began considering the Department’s proposals.
In the limited time remaining, the panel took up proposals seeking to limit the scope of regional accreditors by confining the “regions” in which they operate to “at least three but fewer than 10 contiguous States or territories within the United States.” If adopted, this change would either drastically redraw the map of regional accrediting organizations or force some regionals, such as HLC or SACS, to designate themselves as national accrediting bodies.
The Department’s proposal in this area seems targeted at eroding the distinction between regional and national accreditors. To the extent that many regionally-accredited institutions have national reach, and since regional accrediting bodies permit some degree of extraterritorial activities, the geographic distinction may be outmoded. However, the chief distinction between regional and national accrediting bodies is largely reflected in the prestige accorded to regional accreditation compared to national accreditation. Highly selective, traditional 4-year institutions tend to be regionally accredited, whereas private career schools (with lower selectivity and an orientation toward preparing students for employment in a recognized occupation) are typically nationally accredited. As a result, accreditors’ various standards have evolved to reflect the type of intuitions that dominate their respective membership. Thus, an institution may be a better “fit” with a certain regional or national accreditor depending on its mission. This seems unlikely to change even if federal policy no longer recognizes a difference between “regional” and “national” accrediting bodies.
The Committee also discussed proposed changes to the requirements for an accrediting body seeking federal recognition. One change would expand the ways in which an accrediting body can establish a “link to federal programs,” i.e., that it accredits Title IV eligible institutions. Another proposal on the table is to remove the two-year rule, which requires an accrediting body to have operated for a period of 2 years before applying for initial recognition. These changes, if adopted, could remove barriers to recognition for agencies, particularly newly formed associations.
These two proposals, as well as a few others the Department has put forward, demonstrate that the Department may think that increased competition among recognized accreditors could stimulate innovation in higher-ed.
As with all negotiated rulemakings, the devil is in the details, and we’ve only just begun. The negotiators are due back in D.C. the week of February 12-13 to resume the process.