A mini scandal amid a maxi push for federal control

It’s happening beneath the radar of most media and the public, but it is a major conflict, nonetheless. The prize that is being fought over is accreditation – who decides which schools are “good enough” so that their students can receive federal financial aid (such as Pell grants).

Nominally, eight regional associations accredit most of the nation’s undergraduate school (they divide up the country like a cartel, says George Leef, and have little competition). But dissatisfaction with these organizations is strong, especially from Department of Education secretary Margaret Spellings. She is trying to persuade the accreditors to measure student learning, rather than tally inputs such as the number of books in the library.

Measuring outcomes is a good thing, and administrators hate the current review process, which entails loads of work and no real assessment of what the college is accomplishing. “I don’t think that anyone not intimately involved in these proceedings could have any idea of the mountain of labor necessary,“ says a University of California faculty member and administrator. “It’s the ultimate bureaucratic enterprise.”

It would be worse, however, says this individual, if the federal government were in charge. “It would never end.”

The government is trying to exert much more control over the process. The Department of Education has been holding a series of meetings (called “negotiated rule-making”) with representatives of the accrediting organizations, trying to persuade them to adopt outcome measures specified by the department.

Avidly followed by watchdogs such as Doug Lederman of insidehighered.com, the negotiation process recently ended with a stand-off. The accreditors won’t agree to shift in all the ways the department would like.

That’s where the mini-scandal comes in. After negotiations had bogged down on one issue, rules for granting transfer credits, Vickie L. Schray of the DOE initiated a phone call on April 25 to Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Eaton had been the single “no” vote on a proposed compromise on the issue.

According to insidehighered.com, Schray listed three options in her conversation. Eaton could “stick to her guns,” change her mind, or resign. Eaton (and others) interpreted this unusual phone call as intimidation in order to get consensus. Schray denies that. But the dust-up illustrates the uncomfortable relationships between accreditors and government.

Who are the good guys here? It’s hard to say. Accreditors are bureaucratic and political and, because they face so little competition, they can be autocratic as well. University of Colorado president Hank Brown noted before a congressional hearing a few years ago that accreditors have “enormous leverage” over the institutions they accredit, and they can abuse that process.

But would more control by the federal government be better? One must be skeptical. In any case, a new debate over proper accreditation appears to be starting. The Pope Center will be following it. For some background on accreditation, I recommend a 2002 paper by George C. Leef and Roxanna D. Burris, published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.