Feds look to change evaluation of colleges

A federal commission and the U.S. House are studying how to change the process of accreditation across the U.S.

Jamie VanGeest

The federal government might soon take an active role when it comes to the way the University is evaluated.

The Commission on the Future of Higher Education and the U.S. House of Representatives are discussing ways to change the way the nation’s universities are accredited.

The commission defines accreditation as a university performing a self-study, which then is validated by an external group of peers.

The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which performs accreditation for the University, is one of six regional accreditation associations in the country.

John Engelen, director of University federal relations, said accreditors look at performance.

“It’s one of the many ways universities are held accountable,” he said.

The regional associations evaluate areas such as financial stability, admissions, student personnel, student academic achievement and institutional effectiveness, according to the University’s Office of Academic and Planning Affairs.

Some issues the Commission on the Future of Higher Education has addressed include accrediting organizations that don’t address decreasing literacy rates in college students and the fact that two-thirds of students who enter college need remedial reading, writing or math classes.

A commission publication said parents and students lack information on schools’ admission requirements and costs. The accreditation process should force universities to make this information more transparent, according to the publication.

An idea to address these problems is creating a national accreditation foundation, which would create and carry out quality standards for all colleges in the country, according to the commission publication.

But commission members also are talking about having accreditation done within states or having a standardized test for all students to evaluate how much they are learning, Engelen said.

Craig Swan, vice provost for undergraduate education, said the current regional accreditation system has its strengths.

A federal system might not distinguish between different types of universities, Swan said.

“I think a federal system is likely to end up trying to force schools into straitjackets,” Swan said. “It’s going be inappropriate for many schools.”

University President Bob Bruininks plans to travel to Washington, D.C., at the end of April to hear the head of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education speak, Engelen said.

A full report by the commission, including information about accreditation, is to be put out by the commission at the end of the summer, he said.

Higher Education Act

The U.S. House also is addressing the issue of accreditation through a bill calling for the Higher Education Act’s renewal.

The original bill from the House Committee on Education and the Workforce proposed for universities to not take into consideration, when admitting transfer students, whether the institution they came from is accredited, Engelen said.

When the U.S. House received the bill, it softened the language so universities had to disclose to only the transfer applicant whether they took accreditation into consideration when transferring credits, he said.

Kris Wright, the University’s financial aid director, said that if the federal government dictates transfer credits, students might have to take credits that are not appropriate for their degree.

Wright said new guidelines for accreditation would affect universities that receive federal funding.

The University receives federal money through student loans and Pell Grants.