One of the nation’s leading lawmakers with oversight of higher education policy told college officials this week that accrediting agencies should expect to reclaim review authority over institutional assessment from the U.S. Department of Education.
U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chair Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) promised increased accountability along with smaller systems of federal influence during an annual meeting of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), held this week in Washington D.C.
An outspoken critic of the Obama Administration’s policies on healthcare and education, Foxx told attendees that regulations would be changed to permanently limit policy-shaping guidance enacted by a secretary of education.
“It has never been and never should be the federal government’s role to judge the quality of a school’s education programs,” Foxx said. “Entrusting independent bodies like you, not Congress or the Department of Education with that responsibility helps to protect academic freedom and student choices.”
Foxx’s remarks follow increasing attention on reporting errors and unintended consequences of guidance issued under the Obama administration. Earlier this month, ED officials released a statement on a "coding error" which incorrectly reported student loan repayment rates. According to amended data, the national total of students making at least one payment in seven years since leaving an institution, was roughly 20% lower than originally reported.
The Department has also faced criticism from campuses nationwide on Title IX and sexual assault guidelines, which have resulted in conflicting sanctions for students accused of assault, public notice about reported incidents without full details, and lawsuits from students for violation of student privacy and due process laws.
Foxx said that these regulations and others have helped to create financial bloat for compliance reporting at colleges nationwide, and that eliminating more than $27 billion in administrative costs would be a focus for the House committee in the effort to empower stronger support for accreditation standards on the key issues.
“We’ll do everything we can to roll back constraining regulations and ensure that the secretary of education doesn’t have the power to recklessly second guess the tough decisions that you have to make. Or for that matter, any member of Congress.”
A challenge to accreditors
Foxx said that limited reach from government did not absolve accreditors from doing the work of educating the public about the quality and effectiveness of schools and academic programs. Last week, several state attorneys general appealed to a federal judge presiding over an appeal from the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools seeking reinstatement as a federally-approved accrediting body, a status it lost last September as for-profit education companies like Corinthians Colleges and ITT have shuttered in the last four years amid lawsuits for false marketing and degrees which have not yielded postgraduate employment outcomes.
“We need to advance policies that will help more Americans pursue higher education in the first place. Helping students and parents make informed decisions is one way to do it, another is to better evaluate federal programs to ensure they are effective in providing students the academic support that they need,” Foxx said.
“Accreditors have to embrace a commitment to high quality and improved student outcomes. We need you as an industry to do better because people rely on you. It’s not Congress’ place to tell you what makes a high-quality education, or which outcomes you need to look at. You face a monumental task and a critical one. Unfortunately you’ve been forced to shift your focus to compliance rather than promoting academic integrity. You’ve spent more time looking over your shoulder, than looking to the future of higher ed.”
Some attendees voiced support for Foxx's comments on accountability, and their ability to enhance accreditation as a tool to promote academic freedom.
"I think a robust and independent higher education sector within our society is essential to a working democracy and a functional civil society," said Daniel Seitz, Executive Director for the Council on Naturopathic Medical Education.
Legislative action impacting higher education
Foxx was asked about the recent executive order which has blocked entry to the United States from international residents from seven Middle Eastern nations, a policy which has drawn widespread rebuke and concern from college leaders throughout the country.
When asked about her released statement criticizing the lack of clarity and guidance on the implementation of the rule, and if she would support amendments to the order, Foxx said that no new information had been provided about potential changes.
“My understanding is that the executive order the president put out is completely legal, and authorized, and so I don’t know of anything that the Congress might do in response to it.”
She expressed optimism about potential new approaches to academic construct, something she said was a key sign of overreach under the previous administration.
“The best example, or the worst example depending on how you want to look at it is the administration deciding what a credit hour is,” Foxx said. “It’s not the responsibility of the federal government to do that. It is the responsibility of the accrediting agencies.”
On the subject of reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Foxx said that it was a work in progress for the committee, but one that appears to remain in flux as it has since 2008.
“While we don’t have a timeline for the reauthorization of the higher education act, please rest assured that we are working hard to get it done. While HEA reauthorization is a top priority, it is not our only higher education priority.”