Response to Higher Education Accreditation

AACS GRC Submits Responses To Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander


On Monday, March 23, 2015, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee Chairman released three staff white papers and requested feedback from the higher education community on issues related to the pending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.  The issues – Accreditation, (Institutional) Risk Sharing, and Data Collection and Consumer Information, were couched in the form of "Concepts and Proposals" that the HELP Committee were likely to be considering, based upon proposals already introduced or being discussed from both sides of the political spectrum (Democrats, as well as the GOP).

Interested and affected parties – including students, parents and others interested in higher education – were given until last Friday, April 24, 2015 to submit their comments and recommendations, which, as noted by Chairman Alexander, "will be considered during the bipartisan reauthorization process that Senator (Patty) Murray and I will be developing."

Wasting little time the AACS Government Relations Committee began its evaluation of the three white papers, discussed general positions in relation to our overarching 2015 HEA Reauthorization "CARE" Recommendations, and set out to complete the development of responses on behalf of our students and schools.  Ad hoc meetings and a series of conference call resulted in three rather lengthy responses which we are proud to share with you below.

We hope that you will take the time to review our efforts on your behalf, and provide us with your input, as deliberations on these issues are just beginning, and there is always time to revise and extend our remarks as the HEA Reauthorization process moves forward.  And moving forward it is!

On Tuesday, April 28th, Senate HELP Committee Chairman Alexander announced his intent to host a Full Committee Hearing entitled, "Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act: The Role of Consumer Information in College Choice" next Wednesday, May 6th. One and possibly as many as two panels of witnesses will be called upon to discuss in greater detail their views on the information outlined in the "Federal Postsecondary Data Transparency and Consumer Information" white paper – with determinations of who will be asked to testify still yet to be determined.

While AACS does not expect to be called upon in this instance, we are prepared to do so if called upon.  If not, Chairman Alexander, Ranking Member Murray, and the HELP Committee at the very least have our community's comments and recommendations to refer to. 

Your GRC will be monitoring the hearing upon our return home from the AACS Spring Executive Retreat and will be providing you with a summary of the hearing and the key takeaways in relation to our response.  Stay tuned and we hope to see you this weekend in Phoenix!

The American Association of Cosmetology Schools'

Response to

Chairman Lamar Alexander's

Higher Education Accreditation: Concepts and Proposals White Paper

 

 

OVERVIEW

The American Association of Cosmetology Schools (AACS) would like to begin by thanking Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee Chairman Alexander for challenging the higher education community to provide feedback on this, and the other two other, HEA Reauthorization White Papers.

AACS has chosen to reproduce only the sections of the White Paper that focus upon direct proposals and provide "AACS' Responses" to them based upon AACS member schools perspective and our previously submitted 2015 HEA Reauthorization Recommendations and our always fluid CARE Initiative

AACS looks forward to continuing to work with the Chairman and the rest of the HELP Committee in the exploration of this and other critical issues to be considered as part of the pending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

 

Higher Education Accreditation

Concepts and Proposals

Goal: Improve and enhance academic quality and student success at colleges and universities.

Strategy: Redesign and reform accreditation to strengthen the quality of colleges and universities, promote competition and innovation in higher education, and provide accountability to government stakeholders and taxpayers.

AACS' Response

In general, AACS finds itself compelled to begin our response by commending Chairman Alexander for his desire to take on such an important issue.  We also applaud the Chairman and the HELP Committee for seeking ways to return the focus of this key oversight process to an assessment of academic quality and improvement, instead of  the contract laborer for enforcement of  federal regulations they have been all but forced to become.

From the outset, AACS wants to make it abundantly clear that we would oppose efforts to remove accreditation as a requirement for operation and recognition from the U.S. Department of Education for  funding.   And, we would also like to emphasize that our greatest fear would be the unknown of who would step in to fill the void in the event that the gatekeeping function were taken away from the accreditors.

We candidly do not believe this oversight responsibility would be a function best suited for the states, while we do not overtly oppose proposals that we will discuss later in our response to this White Paper.  Likewise, we shudder to think what it would look like if this function were the explicit domain of the Department of Education for a multitude of reasons – including, but not limited to,

  • The significant lag time which already exists if completing their current enforcement functions (audits and program reviews sometimes taking years to complete);
  • Lengthy delays in addressing institutional request for new program application review and approval; and
  • Requests for guidance in attempting to comply with the State Authorization regulations scheduled to go into effect July 1, 2015 to name just a few.

Couple these concerns with the litany of U.S. Office of the Inspector General and Government Accountability reports questioning the capabilities and the interpretations of the Department to properly administer the programs, and we hope you can understand our reservations and why we are fearful of any potential changes which would place the Department at the forefront of the process.

The fact of the matter, as the Chairman well knows, is that the reason that we are even forced to have these discussions is because the Department has for years abdicated this responsibility to the accreditors – while driving the interpretation and the regulatory assessment that the accreditors are forced to abide.

To that end, AACS believes that among the members of the TRIAD, accreditation remains  the entity best equipped to serve in this capacity.  We maintain that one of the foundations of the TRIAD, and the reason that it has been so effective, is that it builds upon a system of checks and balances for all institutions and the quality they provide.

We conclude with the commitment to share our views with the Chairman and the HELP Committee as we work towards completion of the pending reauthorization of the HEA.

 

Refocus Accreditation on Quality

Proposal #1: Repeal Accreditation-Related Regulations and Statute that are Unrelated to Direct Institutional Quality and Improvement

Today, the federal government’s involvement in accreditation has morphed from 10 pages of law to 28 pages of regulation to nearly 88 pages of sub-regulatory guidance which includes nearly 93 different criteria that accreditors must consider when determining institutional quality. For example, federal regulations and criteria require myriad elements that accreditors must review – many of which are unrelated to direct academic quality and perhaps beyond the scope of accrediting agency expertise – including if institutions have:

  • Written plans to maintain and upgrade facilities, equipment and supplies;
  • Facilities and equipment that meet state and local safety and fire codes;
  • Procedures in place to ensure students who register in distance or correspondence courses are the same individuals who participate, complete, and receive academic credit; and
  • Evidence of compliance with Title IV responsibilities, whether any material weaknesses have been documented, and if so, whether plans have been developed to address deficiencies.

Some observers of accreditation remark that accreditation’s role in quality assurance has shifted from a focus on quality to a compliance role in performing duties for which it is not well suited. Federal regulations on accreditation can also be duplicative of requirements for states and the federal government, particularly references to Title IV eligibility compliance.

Under current law, accreditors are required to have standards on fiscal and administrative capacity. Accreditors often appoint individuals to their boards with significant accounting and financial expertise to help them assess an institution’s financial health. The Department of Education also has its own requirements around financial responsibilities of institutions. These regulations are known as the financial responsibility ratios and are intended to ensure the financial integrity and health of colleges and universities participating in Title IV student aid programs.

Overlapping roles and responsibilities among the actors that make up our “triad” system of higher education governance – federal government, states and accreditors – may not result in optimal oversight and coordination. This warrants a conversation about who’s on the “flagpole” for completing the task and what is each entity’s responsibility.

Freeing accreditation’s responsibilities from the federal government’s burdensome, misguided and duplicative regulations may restore the true focus and capacity of accreditation back to quality and quality improvement of institutions. Department of Education recognition processes may also then be refocused and streamlined to address more critical criteria such as student learning and achievement.

AACS' Response

AACS applauds Chairman Alexander’s recognition of the cost, administrative burden, and duplicity of accreditation.  We agree that the standards should have stronger alignment to issues restricted to educational quality.

We urge Chairman Alexander and the HELP Committee to pay particular attention to all three concerns, and specifically ask you for assistance in addressing the fundamental question of why institutions are required to comply with four or more different sets of financial responsibility ratios, a multitude of competing satisfactory academic progress policies, and the list goes on, and on, and on.

The Chairman, through his FAST Act, has called for unprecedented reform and simplification in the FAFSFA.  We hope that you will consider similar efforts both here, and in the Data Transparency and Consumer Information White Paper too.

Proposal #2: Permit Flexibility and Nuance in Accreditation Reviews

According to some observers of accreditation, federal regulation and criteria may have the effect of requiring accreditors to hold every institution accountable with respect to every detail of an accreditation standard. The consequence of this interpretation may mean that the same detailed review is required of all colleges and universities even if the institution has historically had few issues or weaknesses compared to those institutions with a history of struggling performance.

Providing explicit authority to accreditors to establish “risk-adjusted” or differentiated reviews may allow and give confidence to accreditors to greater focus their attention on institutions that truly need the most assistance, while at the same time offer expedited reviews to colleges and universities with superior track records. Institutions should not be given a “free pass,” but differentiated reviews, if developed thoughtfully, should be equally as reliable and uphold accreditation’s serious responsibilities in quality assurance.

AACS' Response

AACS supports Chairman Alexander's proposal, as long as the integrity of the application of the standards is not lost.  We believe that the best way to ensure that the integrity is maintained is to require the development and publication of the criteria which will be consistently applied by the accreditors in making the determinations proposed.

As noted in the proposal itself, we believe that this will require well thought out and clearly defined standards, attempting to eliminate or severely restrict any ambiguity and/or subjectivity in the process.

If these conditions are met, AACS believes that this will in fact be an enhancement to the accreditation process, we look forward to working with the Chairman and the HELP Committee on ways to build in the necessary integrity, while at the same providing the accreditors with this new authority.

Proposal #3: Encourage Gradation, Distinction and Clarity in Accreditation Status and Reviews

Decisions about whether to grant accreditation status to a college or program are the result of a binary “pass-fail” decision: either an institution or program does or does not receive accreditation. Some have argued that this setup actually establishes a “floor” of minimum standards for achieving accreditation. Given a lack of distinction or gradation, accreditation standards may not be seen as aspirational, but rather simply the bare minimum needed to achieve recognition.

Accreditation matters to the public and sends signals of trust and confidence. Students, families, policymakers, and other interested stakeholders may be unable to discern meaningful information from these blanket accreditation statuses. Even at comparable colleges and universities, quality may vary dramatically, yet all institutions receive the same “accredited” stamp of approval.

Distinctions and gradations within accreditation could include variations such as: accredited and meets standards; accredited with distinction; or accredited and greatly exceeds standards. Providing these additional information layers may not only improve consumer information and college enrollment decisions, but it has the potential to incentivize colleges and universities to strive for increased performance and quality.

Additionally, voluntary actions by some accrediting agencies to publish team review reports and other accreditation decision letters may help instill stakeholder confidence in how accreditors arrive at quality determinations.

AACS' Response

AACS has serious reservations and concerns with this proposal.

While we are willing to consider risk-adjustment and differentiation – with clearly defined standards and criteria – we oppose gradation in the recognition process.

As noted in the White Paper and discussed in past hearings on the role of accreditation and more importantly the public's understanding of why it must matter to them, we respectfully suggest that this will only further confuse the consumer – the antithesis of the goals and objectives contemplated at length in the Data Transparency and Consumer Information White Paper.

Having noted AACS’ opposition, if the gradation process were to include metrics that are currently accepted as “quality type indicators” as part of a matrix removing the requirement to repeat the individual disclosure of those components, we would be more inclined to support the proposal.

For example, if accreditors were able to create a risk adjusted model recognizing factors that would include additional factors such as demographics and PELL eligible student population, it would be a very strong proposal.

Unfortunately, we can find no assurances that this would be the direction the accreditor would be required to go, and remain concerned with the ambiguity of the proposal and how it may be interpreted and implemented to the detriment of the institutions and the consumer. 


Proposal #4: Delink Accreditation from Institutional Eligibility for Federal Student Aid

Many believe that accreditation’s gatekeeping role in sorting out which colleges will be eligible to receive federal student aid has distorted accreditation’s original purpose and created perverse and powerful incentives.

Accreditation is simply no longer a voluntary undertaking for most colleges and universities. It has become a near universal requirement for colleges and universities as access to federal student aid keeps these institutions’ doors open. However, before the advent of federal financial aid programs, colleges and universities sought accreditation as a badge of distinction and honor. This seal of approval acted as an important signaling device to consumers and stakeholders.

But according to a catalog of accreditation decisions, fewer than 10 institutions lost regional accreditation in calendar year 2013.33 Said another way, it may be difficult to attain regional accreditation, but once you are a member of the club, it’s just as hard to leave. And despite accreditation’s purpose to help institutions improve, often by requiring corrective actions, concerns remain about accreditors’ willingness to be bold with substandard institutions. After nearly 30 years of a checkered past of on- and off-probation statuses, Southeastern University finally lost its accreditation in 2009. Rarely do accreditors withdraw accreditation on the basis of educational deficiencies and quality; more often than not, financial concerns are the cause of most sanctions as evidenced by a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

This begs the question of whether student achievement and learning takes primacy and centrality in accreditation reviews. According to a review of 37 accrediting agencies and their standards, researchers at the Institute for Higher Education Policy found that just 18 of 47 accreditor standards “made any attempt to deal directly with student learning outcomes.” Ultimately, with billions of federal student aid on the table, serious questions continue to linger about the ability and integrity of colleges and universities to self-regulate and self-police.

Moreover, accreditation’s gatekeeping role has given accreditor’s authority and leverage to be overly prescriptive, intrusive, and sometimes usurp institutional autonomy. Colleges and universities, which rely on students using Title IV student aid, all too often have a “gun to the head” and must acquiesce to accreditor’s demands to retain their accredited statuses. These demands can range from bureaucratic meddling to interfering with important governance issues. Accreditors have also been known to make conclusions about proper diversity statistics, institutional decisions about curriculum and campus polices on social life and student organizations. Former Dartmouth President Jim Yong Kim eloquently noted that “accreditation staff often substitute their own judgment for that of an institution’s trustees and administrators.”

A growing chorus of critics believe that the only solution is to end the powerful gatekeeping relationship between federal financial aid and accreditation. Doing so would return accreditation to its historical roots as private, peer-review organizations focused on institutional improvement, not agents of federal government enforcement and intrusion.

AACS' Response

Reiterating our earlier comments, AACS supports the Chairman's clearly stated intent to return the accreditation process to its roots as an assessment of educational quality and institutional improvement.

While the proposal heading elicits immediate concerns, our reading of the proposal appears to support our position that, despite some recommendations to the contrary, there appears to be little desire – and we have suggested less rationale and considerable misgivings – for the elimination of accreditation and its educationally based standards as the gatekeeper for Title IV institutional eligibility.

 

Redesign Accreditation to Promote Competition and Innovation

Proposal #1: Establish New Pathways to Accreditation and/or Title IV Eligibility for Non- College Providers of Higher Education

Injecting greater competition in higher education by breaking down regulatory and accrediting agency barriers to entry has the potential to challenge the higher education status quo, drive costs down and stimulate new delivery models of education. For example, last Congress Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) introduced a proposal to allow states to set up their own alternative accrediting systems and decouple Title IV eligibility from enrollment at degree-issuing institutions. It would allow businesses, trade associations, labor unions, or any other knowledge provider the opportunity to provide an accredited educational offering, with the ultimate goal of making “more kinds of students and more kinds of education eligible.”

State-based agencies are one approach to establishing new pathways to Title IV eligibility for nontraditional education but there may be other types of alternative quality assurance models. While questions remain about “what” should be examined – individual courses or alternatively, a focus on just the provider itself – selecting the entity to undertake the challenge is a first step.

Potential Quality Review Models for Non-Traditional Providers:

1)      Utilize current accreditation infrastructure: Authorize willing regional, national, or specialized accrediting agencies to recognize and sanction quality in nontraditional providers of higher education;

2)      Utilize states: Authorize states to enter into agreements with the Secretary of Education to develop accrediting agencies for the purposes of recognizing quality in nontraditional providers of higher education; or

3)      Establish a new accreditor: Authorize grant funds to support initial development of new, non-governmental accrediting agencies that would focus on approving innovative educational providers. These entities may have a set of broad recognition guidelines to reflect the diversity and uniqueness of knowledge providers and could eventually seek recognition from the Department of Education for federal student aid eligibility.

Traditional colleges and universities may find the process and recognition requirements of these alternative quality assurance models appealing. The recognition scope of these alternative quality assurance models potentially could be expanded to provide options for all providers of higher education, whether they are traditional institutions or more recent “non-college” providers of higher education.

AACS' Response

AACS respectfully opposes Chairman Alexander's presentation of this proposal and the desire of some in Congress to open up accreditation to a whole new host of entrants and participants.

While AACS generally supports competition and believes that quality is often time improved through such competition, we believe that in this instance it will simply add more confusion and complexity to a process that the Chairman and the HELP Committee are trying to streamline and make more efficient and effective.

Proposal #2: Eliminate the Geographic-Based Structure of Regional Accrediting Agencies

Removing the geographic jurisdiction from regional accrediting agencies has the potential to inject market forces in an otherwise non-competitive activity. Regional accrediting agencies would no longer be given a guaranteed customer base and a college’s physical location would no longer determine its accreditor. For example, colleges in Maine would not be bound to the regional monopoly of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Bowdoin College could be free to seek recognition from the Middle States Association of Colleges and Universities or the Northwest Accreditation Commission.

Regional accrediting agencies would for the first time be subject to competition if colleges and universities had choices and options. Competition for membership has the potential to incentivize accreditors to raise quality standards and clearly differentiate themselves in the marketplace between those that hold high quality at a premium and those that may not. Arguing against the view that a free market in accreditation would cause a “race to the bottom” for educational standards, former Boston University president Jon Westling states:

“If [accrediting agencies] have anything worthwhile to offer colleges and universities, colleges and universities will pay them for it. Generally, colleges and universities will pay to be reviewed by the agency which has the strictest standards that the institution thinks it can pass. A free market in accreditation agencies will quickly stratify, with the toughest agencies attracting the best colleges and universities. “

As a result of breaking up the regional monopolies, colleges and universities would also be free to organize accreditation around preferred characteristics, such as institutional type, size, mission, or selectivity. The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education produced by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is a helpful guide in visualizing the various possibilities for accreditation redesign.

Options for Non-Geographic Structures of Accreditation Design Based On:

  1. Basic Institutional Classification:
    1. Doctorate-Granting Universities
    2. Master’s College and Universities
    3. Baccalaureate Colleges
    4. Associates Colleges
    5. Special Focus Colleges (must have at least 80% of undergraduate and graduate degrees in discipline, e.g. schools of music, Bible schools, or schools of art)
    6. Tribal Colleges
  1. Selectivity:
    1. Inclusive – Students with a 25th percentile ACT-equivalent score below 18.
    2. Selective – Students with a 25th percentile ACT-equivalent score from 18 to 21.
    3. More Selective – Students with a 25th percentile ACT-equivalent score greater than 21.
  1. Dissolve the current regional boundaries and let institutions choose the accreditor of their choice thereby making all current regional accreditors national in scope.

AACS' Response

As a portion of the private, for-profit community that is almost entirely voluntary members of national accrediting agencies, we come from a frame of reference where the boundaries have never existed.

That noted, AACS recognizes and agrees that it seems that the concept of regional boundaries lack common sense given the innovation in the delivery of education and new models of credentialing currently being explored by Congress as well as external entities.

To the degree that –

  • Our familiarity with national accreditation;
  • The development of standards and criteria developed to meet the challenges already discussed with duplication of requirements;
  • Inconsistency which arises as a result of state-by-state mandates vs. accreditation standards, et. al.; become impediments to this proposal, AACS would welcome the opportunity to share our perspective.

 

Keep Recognition of Accrediting Agencies Independent and Free from Politics

The Secretary’s decision to recognize an accrediting agency must remain objective, fair and guided by law, rather than politically motived desires.

Proposal: Ensure the NACIQI’s Independence

1)      Limit any expansion of the Secretary of Education’s authority in making policy-related recognition decisions outside of current law.

2)      Authorize the NACIQI to hire its own accreditation staff, independent of the Department of Education accreditation staff, to assist in preparation of agency recognition recommendations.

AACS' Response

While AACS believes that these are questions which are best addressed by the various accrediting agencies under the authority of the statute and the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, we support both of these proposals. 

Furthermore, we believe that they are important components of the Chairman's overarching goals to restore accreditation to its roots, reverse the years of additional regulatory mandates that accreditors have been forced to undertake – or risk their own sanctions or determinations of ineligibility and still maintain accreditation as the authority for determining institutions' eligibility to participate and administer federal student financial assistance to the students who need these funds to pursue their individual postsecondary career path.