Proponents of a broad overhaul of the nation's accreditation system are likely to be disappointed in the changes that a federal advisory panel will recommend to the education secretary. But supporters of the current accreditation process are not likely to be much happier about those recommendations.
The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity is an 18-member panel that advises the education secretary on whether to approve accrediting agencies as gatekeepers of federal financial aid. In order for students to receive federally backed loans or grants, their institution must be accredited by a group that has been recognized by the Education Departmment.
The advisory panel, which was overhauled in the last reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, began meeting more than a year ago with an additional charge from the education secretary: to suggest ways that accreditation should change in the next reauthorization of the main federal higher-education law, which expires at the end of 2013.
On Friday the panel approved its set of recommendations in a two-hour conference call, in which 11 of the 18 committee members participated.
While an early draft of the recommendations floated far-reaching possibilities, such as removing accreditation as a condition of an institution's students receiving federal financial aid, most panelists showed little appetite for that degree of change.
Friday's discussion followed a similar pattern. Two panelists, who submitted an alternative set of recommendations that called for separating accreditation from the conditions for qualifying for federal student aid, said accreditors could not adequately fulfill dual roles, as both gatekeeper for that money and monitor of academic quality.
The current system is not sufficiently safeguarding the estimated $175-billion in federal student aid that flows annually to accredited colleges, nor is it providing a rigorous assurance of academic improvement, the panelists said.
"Accreditation currently gives students and parents a false sense that accredited schools have passed a meaningful test of quality when they have not. Real public accountability cannot and should not be imposed by accreditors but should come from the institutions themselves. And this accountability can be provided far more cheaply and more effectively by simply demanding evidence of financial stability and transparent consumer information," wrote Anne Neal and Arthur J. Rothkopf, the two panelists who devised the alternative recommendations. Ms. Neal is president and a founder of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Mr. Rothkopf is president emeritus of Lafayette College and vice chairman of the committee.
But the set of recommendations that the panel approved on Friday "endorses and preserves the status quo," Mr. Rothkopf said during the conference call, even though the response from accreditors and institutions was overly negative.
Accreditors' concerns were summed up during the call by Sylvia Manning, president of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, who was speaking on behalf of the nation's six regional accrediting organizations.
While the advisory panel had responded to some of the accreditors' earlier reservations, many of the recommendations could lead to even greater oversight of the accreditation process by federal and state governments, and could increase the cost of the process for both accreditors and institutions.
The Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which represents some 3,000 postsecondary institutions, had similar comments on the draft recommendations. The final draft, it argues, "suggests a more active role by the U.S. Department of Education in the practices of accreditation."
That has already started occurring, say many accrediting bodies, which have complained of the "granularity" of Education Department staff members who are reviewing their applications to be recognized by the federal government.