March 11, 2020
On February 27th, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI)--an independent body that advises the Department of Education on matters related to accreditation and institutional quality--met for its bi-annual meeting. This meeting is the first since the Department announced the adoption of its final accreditation regulations last fall, rules that are popular among accreditors but concerning to consumer advocates.
The highlight of the meeting was senior official Diane Auer Jones’ update on the new regulations, which provided some clarity about the upcoming July 1, 2020 effective-date of the rules, and piled on additional concerns, about how the Department of Education will implement the new rules.
The New Regulations Are Coming...Eventually
The new regulations are set to be implemented on July 1, more than six months after the rules were finalized (as required by law). But up until the NACIQI meeting, the Department hadn’t clarified for the public what this implementation would look like in practice.
Jones provided more information: Because the recognition application and process is lengthy, agencies already in the middle of review will be judged based on current regulations. For other agencies, accreditors presumably will have to demonstrate compliance with the forthcoming standards by the time they come up for a review -- a process that will begin two years in advance under the new rules.
For example, SACSCOC was last approved in November 2019 and is due for renewal in 2022, so it won’t be subject to the new regulations for its 2022 recognition process, already underway. It would however, begin the reapplication process in 2020, a full two years in advance. But an agency like ACCJC, also approved November 2019, isn’t scheduled for renewal until 2024, so it will be expected to demonstrate compliance in the application it starts developing in 2022. According to Jones, NACIQI will not have an accrediting agency come to it for review under the new regulations until at least 2021.
Despite the update, it is still unclear whether the Department will expect agencies to revise their standards before their first recognition process in which they will be judged for compliance with the rules and if it would actively check whether agencies are compliant with the forthcoming regulations at any point in the interim.
Is Access to Independent Information and Transparency Denied?
NACIQI members are also wondering how the Department will ensure they have access to comprehensive and independent information under the new regulations. It’s a particular concern because while agencies currently submit--and are judged on--applications they send to the Department and NACIQI, the new rules and processes will largely substitute that for site visits. The Department will review a significant portion of evidence currently included in an agency’s application while on site at an accreditor’s office and maintain only the records on which it based its decision, as Jones put it in last year’s NACIQI meeting. What this looks like for NACIQI members, then, is that they won’t have full access to accreditors’ applications, forcing them toward a decision based significantly on the Department’s own recommendation.
Sneaky Compliance: Agency Standards on Paper
Also under new regulations, accreditors will be immediately notified if they are found to be out of compliance with federal standards as opposed to waiting for the Department’s draft report to the accreditor. For accreditors, this has the benefit of allowing them additional time to fix problems. However, it is not clear whether compliance issues found and remedied will be included in the record provided to NACIQI. The new regulations include a much easier bar for compliance, so if an agency is never dinged for its noncompliance (provided it rewrites the policy accordingly), and the evidence to back decisions isn’t clear in the Department’s report, these rules could raise the risk of disincentivizing compliance except around recognition periods. This could also keep the public in the dark about problems accreditors face.
Scrapping What Little Transparency We Had: Accreditor Dashboards
Over the last several years, NACIQI members have sought to use better data about the agencies they were reviewing, noting “shock” that “a lot of accreditation agencies don’t even collect these kinds of data.” To inform those efforts, and at the request of members of NACIQI, the advisory body partnered with the Education Department to develop accreditor dashboards. These dashboards held descriptive data about an accrediting agency’s institutions, the amount of federal aid dollars received by those schools, and the outcomes of schools within their portfolios -- information NACIQI could use to ask probing questions of accrediting agencies and inform their recommendations to the Department about whether to grant recognition.
As of the last meeting, the dashboards have been scrapped. After failing to provide the dashboards in advance of the meeting, Jones emphatically stated that the subcommittee on student outcomes for NACIQI, which supervised the accreditor dashboard pilot (since made a full-blown policy of NACIQI), would no longer have access to Department-provided data analyzing accreditors’ institutions that enabled members to ask these questions. Alleging that the data had been used to force accreditors to set “bright line” outcome standards for their institutions (an accusation not borne out by regional accreditors’ standards), Jones noted that the Department would simply refuse to provide the underlying data on which NACIQI members had been reliant.
This is a step back in accreditor transparency for NACIQI and ED. Accreditors are gatekeepers to billions of federal financial aid dollars each year; and yet they are rarely measured by how well students are served by their schools. And while the use of accreditor dashboards in NACIQI’s decision-making process was eliminated, student advocates hope they can make a comeback.
Jones’ comments brought a little clarity and even more concern for what the realities under the new accreditation regulations could look like. But it’s clear that students and their advocates will have to keep a watchful eye over higher education’s watchdogs to ensure students are protected over the interests of institutions and their accreditors.