Dear Mr. Washington:
On behalf of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), we are pleased to respond to the call for public comment regarding the upcoming negotiated rulemaking as it pertains to changes to accreditation. We also wish to note our thoughts on how the consideration of accreditation relates to other key areas, namely competency-based education and state authorization.
AGB is the premier organization centered on governance in higher education, serving more than 1,300 member boards, 1,900 institutions, and nearly 40,000 board members. Governing boards hold a discrete authority over the colleges and universities they serve. As fiduciaries, board members are ultimately accountable for fulfilling institutional mission, ensuring academic quality and financial health, and overseeing all major policies.
AGB supports the U.S. Department of Education (the Department) moving forward with this negotiated rulemaking process if its focus in doing so is in a way that promotes innovation and the ability of colleges and universities to meet the changing needs of students and enhance mechanisms for educational delivery and academic programs. At the start, we recognize that our current system of accreditation is far from perfect—there have been lapses in appropriate oversight that have failed students and called into question the value of the process. But despite such flaws, we believe accreditation can be improved and that it remains the best way to ensure educational quality. As the Department engages in this important review, we believe that institutional independence, the ability to innovate, and the protection of the interest of students should remain as guiding factors for any negotiated rulemaking process that is developed. We therefore offer the following comments below on more specific provisions of the notice.
Governing boards, in collaboration with presidents/chancellors, senior administrators, and faculty, should be responsible for defining their institutions’ missions and ensuring student success. The quality of this work should be reviewed periodically by accrediting agencies recognized by the Department. However, we do believe that simply demanding compliance with an ever-increasing number of regulations and burdensome reporting mechanisms through accreditation should be re-examined during negotiated rulemaking. It is critically important that institutions continue to improve and enhance academic quality and student success, as students and families depend on the assurance that the accreditation process offers. All stakeholders in this endeavor have a responsibility to do their part to achieve this goal. Governing boards play a vital role in advancing educational quality and collaborating with and building upon the work of accreditors. To ensure that this collaborative process best serves students, any negotiated rulemaking must not lose sight of the key aspects of accreditation that must be preserved, including: 1) peer review; 2) institutional autonomy; 3) commitment to institutional mission; 4) academic quality; and 5) academic freedom. AGB supports the Department moving forward with negotiated rulemaking around accreditation, so long as it is done with the goal of streamlining the process, reinforcing institutional autonomy, and increasing innovation in higher education.
Higher education leaders—particularly trustees—are concerned that federal mandates that direct accreditors to emphasize specific educational methods are too often a barrier to risk-taking and innovation. Currently, accreditors face a quandary: strict standards provide needed confidence and access to federal support; but such standards (especially when mandated by federal regulations) can limit creativity and inhibit progress that the public expects from our colleges and universities. As an example, AGB suggests that the Department remove the strict definitions of “substantive changes” in 34 CFR 602.24, which would allow accreditors to have more flexibility in determining if and when a change is truly “substantive” and warrants further oversight and review. Under current regulations, this is frequently not the case, resulting in unnecessary bureaucratic work for accreditors. Strict standards and openness to innovation should not be in conflict. Innovation should be encouraged rather than over-regulated. Reducing the regulatory burden on accreditors would free them to focus on areas that they deem more critical for institutional quality. We believe regional accreditors should maintain aggressive oversight of institutional progress toward mission, and the federal government should support accreditors in these efforts. Additionally, as the Department considers issues related to accreditation, we hope it recognizes the centrality of governing boards throughout the process.
Competency-based education (CBE), and specifically direct assessment, is another issue under consideration as part of the negotiated rulemaking process. In the same spirit of innovation, AGB supports a focus on CBE in this negotiated rulemaking process and believes that any changes in this area must lead to the Department granting more flexibility for institutions (and accreditors) to experiment with programs that award credit for knowledge gained outside the classroom. Related to this issue is the definition of a credit-hour included as part of the current regulations. AGB supports the Department’s desire to rethink this definition in a way that would help encourage experimentation and innovation related to CBE. As boards consider how to lower costs and increase graduate completion rates, students will be best served if the Department provides leeway for institutions to identify appropriate expectations and best practices that may differ from credit-hour formulas, which can dictate terms/definitions such as semester hour, quarter hour, clock hours, etc. The existing regulations are often confusing and inhibitive to institutions and other concerned parties.
State Authorization in Distance Education
Another set of rules worth including as part of the negotiated rulemaking process is the Department’s approach to state authorization of distance education. The rule in question (Section 600.9) essentially instructed the federal government to enforce state statutes that already require institutions to comply with state policies regarding distance education. Although the rule’s implementation was recently delayed, it is flawed on substantive grounds and should be changed through this process. AGB supports the Department reconsidering these rules if the focus remains on both the protection of students and lessening the administrative burden on institutions. We look forward to engaging the Department further on this issue as it relates to governing boards.
As fiduciaries, governing boards play an important role in accreditation and quality assurance, and they provide oversight and seek to be collaborators in these important conversations and processes. And AGB and its members will continue to work with accreditors and the Department to provide new ideas and improve the system. As the Department pursues the aforementioned policy considerations and regulations, AGB urges careful consideration of the role of governing boards and the inclusion of trustees in all deliberations about potential changes that will enable both institutions and accreditors to embrace innovation, diminish barriers to experimentation, and more fully serve the next generation of America’s students.
David W. Miles Chair, AGB Board of Directors Board member (and former Chair), Drake University
Richard D. Legon AGB President Board member, Spelman College