In a potentially significant policy shift, the U.S. Department of Education this week will propose that the nation's colleges, universities and post-secondary trade schools document student achievement as a condition for accreditation.
Under proposed rules announced Saturday and scheduled for publication in the Federal Register on Tuesday, accrediting agencies will be directed to require institutions participating in federal loan and grant programs "to measure, assess and document student progress toward specific goals," such as degrees, certificates or job placements, said C. Ronald Kimberling, the department's assistant secretary for post-secondary education.
Previously, Kimberling said in a telephone interview, "accrediting agencies have looked at 'inputs'--how many faculty members have Ph.Ds, how many books are in the library. . . . That's evidence, but the best way of measuring how they teach is by measuring the level of student achievement."
Federal law requires the secretary of education to publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies. These agencies are responsible, Kimberling said, for assessing the quality of education or training offered by institutions of higher learning, be they nonprofit colleges or proprietary vocational schools.
Without accreditation by one of these agencies, the schools are not eligible to participate in student aid and other federal education programs. Such accreditation is particularly important to proprietary vocational schools that teach specific skills such as cosmetology or computer programming. For many such schools, eligibility for federal loans and grants is a central part of their lure to students.
Currently, Kimberling said, more than 80 organizations accredit nearly 9,000 post-secondary schools. He said the new regulations change the criteria that the Department of Education will use in determining whether to grant recognition to an organization as a certified accrediting agency.
"The revised regulations would improve consumer protection," Education Secretary William Bennett said in a prepared statement. "Accrediting agencies would be expected to ensure that institutions truthfully and adequately represent themselves to the public." Specifically, the statement said, agencies would be required to set guidelines for schools to disclose sufficient information to prospective students on "costs, refund policies and graduation requirements."
'Add Some Teeth'
Kimberling said representations made about job placement rates by vocational schools would also be subject to scrutiny. He said the changes "will add some teeth to the ability of accrediting agencies to monitor any practices that would be untruthful or misleading."
Another significant provision of the new regulations provides that an accrediting agency could not recognize an institution that had been denied accreditation by another agency in the previous 12 months. Presently, Kimberling said, some schools that have lost their accreditation are able to find another agency to accredit them, thus allowing them to continue to operate in a questionable manner.
There will be a 45-day period during which the public may submit comments on the proposed regulations, and it is possible there will be some modification of them, Kimberling said. But he added that the department did not expect any major opposition to the changes.
He said the genesis of the new regulations was a study done for the agency by an advisory body headed by Donald M. Stewart, now president of the College Board. That group said the criteria for recognizing accrediting agencies, last modified in 1974, were in need of change.