Washington Watch: ED outlines plan for accreditation review

The U.S. Education Department of Education (ED) on Monday outlined its detailed plans for a major regulatory review of accreditation and other key regulations.

The review largely concerns academic activities and their interaction with the Title IV student aid programs, and the stakes are huge.

The central thrust of ED’s proposed regulatory update is to foster greater “innovation” in higher education, and, among other things, to review the oversight of institutions by the accreditors, states and the department itself.

ED is not required to undertake this initiative; no recent statutory changes necessitate a revision of the rules. In fact, the regulatory effort can be attributed, in part, to Congress’s failure to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) in a timely fashion.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) last month presented testimony on this issue and also submitted formal comments.

Focus areas

ED plans to establish a negotiated-rulemaking committee to undertake the regulatory review along with three subcommittees, which will recommend policies to the committee for action. The department is required to subject all Title IV regulations to negotiation, and if consensus is reached, the published rules must reflect that consensus.

The primary, overarching negotiating committee is to examine “accreditation and innovation,” with the three proposed subcommittees assigned to: distance learning and educational innovation, the TEACH Grant program and faith-based entities, the latter focusing on ensuring that the federal government does not impinge upon their activity.

In a change from previous practice and to expedite the negotiating process, ED plans to provide draft regulations at the first meeting. This positive step reflects the fact that, given the wide range of potential regulatory changes on the issues, a common jumping off point will help focus discussions.

Community college perspectives

At minimum, AACC will nominate individuals to represent community colleges on the primary committee as well as the distance education subcommittee. Nominations are due November 15.

Some of the issues that community college negotiators will need to consider include:

  • How much innovation is inhibited by the federal government’s student aid policies, and how much is due to other factors?
  • Is the accreditation process “anti-competitive,” and are accreditors failing to adequately consider “institutional mission,” as is suggested in the regulatory announcement?
  • Is accreditation generally focusing on the right aspects of institutional policy, or is it overly tilted towards compliance with federal regulations?
  • Should new, non-institutional providers be given incentives to provide programs eligible for Title IV aid?
  • To what extent, if any, has the federal regulatory definition of credit hour, written into regulation by the Obama administration, constrained institutions?
  • How can the government encourage the further expansion of competency-based education (CBE) at community colleges without allowing unscrupulous providers to use new CBE eligibility to exploit students and taxpayers?
  • How should current regulations be revised to accommodate distance education programs, particularly in terms of term length and satisfactory academic progress? (For the latter, ED has broad regulatory authority.)

The committee will meet for a total of 10 days in Washington, D.C., over three months, beginning in January. Each of the three subcommittees will meet for six days over the same period. The effort promises to have important implications for community colleges.

About the Author

David Baime
is senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.