• August 30, 2015

Inspector General Keeps the Pressure on a Regional Accreditor

The inspector general of the U.S. Department of Education has reaffirmed a recommendation that the department should consider sanctions for the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, one of the nation's major regional accrediting organizations. In a report this week, the Office of Inspector General issued its final recommendations stemming from a 2009 examination of the commission's standards for measuring credit hours and program length, and affirmed its earlier critique that the commission had been too lax in its standards for determining the amount of credit a student receives for course work.

The Higher Learning Commission accredits more than 1,000 institutions in 19 states. The Office of Inspector General completed similar reports for two other regional accreditors late last year but did not suggest any sanctions for those organizations.

Possible sanctions against an accreditor include limiting, suspending, or terminating its recognition by the secretary of education as a reliable authority for determining the quality of education at the institutions it accredits. Colleges need accreditation from a federally recognized agency in order to be eligible to participate in the federal student-aid programs.

In its examination of the Higher Learning Commission, the office looked at the commission's reaccreditation of six member institutions: Baker College, DePaul University, Kaplan University, Ohio State University, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and the University of Phoenix. The office chose those institutions—two public, two private, and two proprietary institutions—as those that received the highest amounts of federal funds under Title IV, the section of the Higher Education Act that governs the federal student-aid programs.

It also reviewed the accreditation status of American InterContinental University and the Art Institute of Colorado, two institutions that had sought initial accreditation from the commission during the period the office studied.

The review found that the Higher Learning Commission "does not have an established definition of a credit hour or minimum requirements for program length and the assignment of credit hours," the report says. "The lack of a credit-hour definition and minimum requirements could result in inflated credit hours, the improper designation of full-time student status, and the over-awarding of Title IV funds," the office concluded in its letter to the commission's president, Sylvia Manning.

More important, the office reported that the commission had allowed American InterContinental University to become accredited in 2009 despite having an "egregious" credit policy.

In a letter responding to the commission, Ms. Manning wrote that the inspector general had ignored the limitations the accreditor had placed on American InterContinental to ensure that the institution improved its standards, an effort that had achieved the intended results, she said. "These restrictions were intended to force change at the institution and force it quickly."

Harris N. Miller, president of the Career College Association, which represents more than 1,400 private and mostly for-profit institutions, said the inspector general's report was "silly" and missed the point that Ms. Manning raised in her response: whether or not the accreditor's actions actually forced change at the institution.

That's what the department and Congress and taxpayers should be worried about," he said.

While the Education Department is unlikely to carry out the inspector general's recommendation to suspend or terminate the commission's status as a gatekeeper of federal education aid, Mr. Miller said, that proposal will be a topic of discussion when the federal panel that reviews accreditors convenes later this year.

That 18-member panel, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, advises the education secretary on how well accreditors perform. The Higher Learning Commission is, in fact, scheduled to have its status reviewed by the panel this year.


1. cdwickstrom - May 27, 2010 at 09:31 am

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Still a most pressing question.

2. jdm0007 - May 27, 2010 at 10:00 am

Well someone finnaly caught up with the cozy relationship between NCAC and the University of Phoenix. I always wondered from the begining of UoP how they got accreditaion, then I found that one of the founders, a President of a SW University was a high official in the NCAC and the lights went on. It is too bad that folks do not watch these thing closer. Especially for all the students and taxpayers.

3. davidbinder - May 27, 2010 at 10:48 am

To jfmooo7 ... Please fact check. John Sperling, who is the founder of the University of Phoenix, was never an institution president prior to its founding. He was a professor at a state university that was WASC accredited (not NCA-HLC accredited) who felt he knew a "better way." We can debate whether his way was better or not, but he had no inside track to accreditation at that time. When it was first accredited (1978), the University of Phoenix was on onground institution operating through multiple learning centers. Its online program was not begun until about 1989, roughly 11 years after it was accredited.

As for the Inspector General's report, it is unfortunately a reflection of lack of a unified approach within the Department of Education. On one hand, the Department has pushed for accreditation to be be based mainly on student learning outcomes, a position largely endorsed by CHEA and reflected in the evolving accreditation standards of accreditors, while the Inspector General promotes an inputs model of accreditation. Both accreditors and institutions are caught in the middle of this internal fight within the Department of Education.

4. 22122488 - May 27, 2010 at 11:39 am

Accrediting Agencies should also insist, just as they do in demanding that assessment is in place, that each institution has in place a system for monitoring and correcting grade inflation. A grade A now means almost nothing in many situations and these institutions have failed to enforce rigor and standards in this matter. Repeated offenders should not be able to hide behind "academic freedom" and they must be prepared to design specific questions in class assignments and in exams that actually are designed to separate those students who rightly deserve an A from those who may deserve a B. Accrediting agencies get an F regarding this matter. The department of education should insist that they add this in their inspection criteria.

5. new_theologian - May 27, 2010 at 04:32 pm

I'm more inclined to think that we should just accept that no approach will ever be without its problems, while conscientious professors do take seriously the need to reflect upon their performance and improve in their profession. Too many cooks spoil the soup, and I continue to be shocked at how blind we all seem to be to the fact that this aphorism has been proving itself true in higher education for decades now.

Few real academics deny that there is a measurable decline. Why can't we see that this decline corresponds, historically, to the rate of expansion in the scope of authority granted to accrediting agencies? In effect, there are people tweaking my courses who have never studied my discipline, have never met me, and do not know my students. It is time to stop building a higher and higher Ivory Tower of Babel, and let professors teach their students.

Originally, the taxpayer concern in the distribution of funding was about nothing more than verifying that there really was a school, and that students were really engaged there as students. It wasn't about educational visionaries imagining what they thought colleges should be like. Could you imagine starting a college in a log cabin, today--or a prefabricated mobile structure? With a few liberally-educated faculty members with double-masters degrees, it could serve its disadvantaged student body of twenty perfectly well, but it would never get off the ground, because the accreditors would demand so much extraneous nonsense from them that they could never get around to teaching, and could never afford to keep their doors open. But this is exactly how many of our nation's historic institutions had their start. It worked. It was fine. And their graduates were generally better educated, in that lasting, universally applicable sense, than most of today's college graduates are. We still read Plato and Aristotle, but their schools would never have been accredited today.

Am I the only one who sees the problem? And am I the only one who is disturbed by the fact that there is now direct government insertion into higher education? Where's the reset button? And does anyone really have the will to press it?

6. reformhigheredu - May 27, 2010 at 04:35 pm

I agree completely with #4. In terms of the article, I strongly belive that Middle States Commission of Higher Education (MSA) should also be investigated for their lax standards. I work at a small private university where 95% of students (or more)receive A's in every class (despite the fact that many are unable to speak or write English). Professors never speak up during meetings because they are surrounded by a culture of fear (fear of losing their jobs). Also, many are paid very high salaries to remain quiet and indifferent. Middle States never asks the hard hitting quesitions (that other agencies ask) in their lame criteria for accreditation. The report the university wrote was poorly written with lacking data or data that made no sense and yet the university still passed. Accreditation agencies shouldn't just focus on graduation rates (since students will be passed along). Not only should grade inflation be monitored, but also licensure rates, employment rates, and things such as 1)How many degrees does each student have from the same university? 2)How many students go from undegraduate sraight through doctoral at the same university? and 3)Why are students borrowing outageous amounts of loans ($80,000-$100,000 or more) for a career that is nowhere near a medical science career or any kind of science career. If univerisities continue with their open admissions and lax educational standards (ie. grade inflation and passing everyone along),the students they graduate will go out into society with obvious deficiencies and the university will develop a bad reputation (let alone a society with people who haven't learned anything).

7. educationfrontlines - May 27, 2010 at 09:31 pm

HLC and other accreditors have bought into the "outcomes-based" educationist (OBE) philosophy that discounts mere "seat time" (Carnegie Units at K-12 and credit hours at tertiary levels). They argue instead for external standardized assessment criteria: pass a test, get a grade, no waiting. Of course, calling it mere "seat time" is an insult to any good teacher. A student gets no credit if the student cannot pass the teacher's internal testing and will have to go through that "seat time" again. OBE has essentially destroyed the professional responsibility of the American K-12 teacher, and is now challenging academic freedom at the university level.

The pressure to replace these "seat time" units comes mainly from the recent online operations (K-12 and tertiary) that cannot justify their courses in contact hours. It also comes from cheap institutions operating in tuition-driven mode. In some regions, you can hear radio commercials for a 3-credit-hour general education course completed in just two weekends!

Grade inflation is also accompanied by content deflation, not to mention hiring faculty who lack minimal credentials. But again, accreditors under the OBE model discount the qualifications of faculty; faculty are a mere "input" similar to counting books on the library shelves. They focus only on "learning outcomes." But no internal or external test measures anywhere near the full spectrum of learning accomplished in a real class.

Currently you cannot sit for the medical board exams unless you have been through medical school. Nor can you sit for the bar exam until you have finished law school. You do not learn surgery or presenting a case by studying for a test. But give the accreditors a few more years to disregard "seat time" and that will change. "Teach to the test, and ignore the rest." Accreditors have accredited fully-online teacher training programs. Are surgeons next?

USDE is dead right to lean on accreditors to enforce credit hour requirements. It is our only defense against schools awarding credit for breathing.

John Richard Schrock

8. resource - May 28, 2010 at 01:02 am

A couple of ideas expressed here are incongruent -- support for tighter controls on grading and attacks on testing. Medical exam, bar exam, licensing exam are all standardized tests. They are considered objective entry level measures of competence in the respective professions. Grading is typically a subjective standard applied inconsistently and whimsically EXCEPT where grades are based on objective standards that are applied across sections of the same course. If you want rigorous grading that means something interpretable, then grades must be based on common tests -- and better to go back to the old way of reporting percentages, in place of letter grades. The carping in these comments seems to be from instructors who believe their way is the magical way, and they should have free license to impose their idiosyncratic standards on their helpless students.

9. new_theologian - May 28, 2010 at 12:37 pm

The comments made by "resource" (#8) reveal the nature of the problem in our quantum-obsessed society. Either our assessment of our students' learning is "objective" or it is "subjective." If it is "objective" it must be quantifiable, reducible to a percentage. "Subjective" grades are inconsistent, whimsical, idiosyncratic, and thus, imposed upon students, who, presumably, bear no responsibility for eliciting their grades. But "objectivity" and "subjectivity" are relational terms that, therefore, have no significance apart from one another. There is no "object" without a "subject" "over-against" whom it can be "cast." So-called "subjective" grading is really about the dialogue at the heart of the learning process itself--the dialogue that allows us to use the word "discipline" to speak of our subject areas. Teachers "disciple" students, just as they, themselves have become disciples of their own professors, who have shaped their minds by drawing them into a dialogue and a way of thinking through questions. That is not an "objective" thing, but an "inter-subjective" one. Since we can't measure the inter-subjective, being, by nature, a non-quantifiable dimension of reality, its role in the learning process is dismissed by those who seek the "rigors" of "objective" standards.

Now, obviously, there are objectifiable, quantifiable measures in education. I don't deny that. But much more of education in the traditional sense of the term (educare = to lead-out / paideia = to walk-along-with) does not fall into this category. Our fixation with quantification and standardization is simply crushing the life out of liberal education. The reduction of all assessment to the quantifiable--and, yes, I'm going to say it--is fundamentally incompatible with liberal education.

10. drj50 - May 28, 2010 at 01:02 pm

@new_theologian: Correlation is not causation. If anything, I suspect that the relationship you identify actually runs in the opposite direction. And in 20 years working with two regional accrediting organizations, I have yet to see one "tweak" any instructor's course.

11. new_theologian - May 28, 2010 at 03:20 pm

drj50: Of course I know that correlation is not causation. But where there is correlation, questions about causation are reasonable. Since the correlation in question is rather tight, it seems to me that scrutiny should be applied. That said, if you don't think that accrediting agencies end up tweaking courses, consider the fact that they mandate that "objectives" or whatever the educational fad of the day happens to be, be traced from top to bottom, in syllabi, through specific assignments, etc. That's what I see happening. Consider, also, the fact that there are whole courses, and thus, adjustments to the core curricula at colleges all over the country, mandated by accreditors who require proficiency in computers as one of the measurable outcomes of a college education. What courses are these mandatory introductory computer courses replacing? How about all the time and resources institutions are required to allocate to documenting all the mandatory navel-staring they do for the accreditors, and tracking how well their students actually end up using computers and other such extraneous things?

Of course, I know that those invested, personally and professionally, in the accrediting business will try to say that none of this happens, but when rubrics are developed by a committee for use in my course on the grounds that the accreditor needs to see documentation of an "objective" measure of student progress, I'd say that's tweaking from the outside.

We have to be cognizant of the ways in which what we say we want to see necessarily creates a penumbra for all sorts of other intrusions. The accreditor doesn't have to say, "do this particular thing in this guy's course," but the demand for X will mean, in some cases, that in EVERY course, Y has to be done, where it had never been traditional to do it, and might even be alien to the discipline.

And, seriously, does anyone actually want to argue that the rise of the authority granted to accreditors is a CONSEQUENCE of the impoverishment of the institutions over which they keep watch and not the cause of that impoverishment? Why the sudden decline after centuries of excellence? The GI Bill that sent thousands of new applicants to college who otherwise wouldn't have sought what colleges offered, and so, demanded less "academic" and more "practical" courses of study? But that's also what gave us the public disbursement of funds that empowered the accreditors to look after the taxpayers' interests: that the goods bargained for (an increasingly "practical" course of study) be delivered.

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