A memorandum released Thursday threatened severe discipline against the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. But the accrediting agency will not lose its authority anytime soon to award institutions the right to distribute federal student aid.
The Higher Learning Commission is one of six regional accreditors recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a gatekeeper for such financial aid.
The inspector general of the U.S. Department of Education recommended this week that the department consider limiting, suspending, or terminating the commission's status as an accrediting organization. At issue is whether the Higher Learning Commission should have accredited American Intercontinental University, a for-profit institution that provides online education. The inspector general's report asserts that the accreditor did not set or enforce adequate standards for measuring credit hours and program length.
While the reaction from other accrediting groups and from Wall Street was swift -- sending the share price for American Intercontinental's parent company into a tailspin -- the process for taking action against the Higher Learning Commission promises to be lengthy and is likely to have little or no effect on the more than 1,000 institutions it accredits in 19 states.
The Education Department's Office of Postsecondary Education has already begun a review of the issues raised by the inspector general, but before the secretary of education can act on the inspector general's findings, the department must issue a report and any recommended action to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, an 18-member advisory committee that must review any accreditation actions.
That committee, however, has yet to be fully formed since its previous incarnation was terminated in the most recent reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The education secretary, Arne Duncan, nominated six members to the commission this week. but the remaining 12 members have yet to be nominated by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi of California, and Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, president pro tempore of the Senate.
And even if the committee and Secretary Duncan make the unlikely decision to terminate the Higher Learning Commission's status as a regional accreditor, the colleges accredited by the commission would have 18 months to seek approval from another regional accrediting agency, according to information from the Department of Education.