Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Trouble with the accreditaton system

In the last post I pointed out that, technically, the government does not accredit schools; accrediting agencies like the Higher Learning Commission exist as private entities. Indeed, Ed.gov pointedly defines accreditation thus: "Accreditation in the United States is a voluntary, nongovernmental process, in which an institution and its programs are evaluated against standards for measuring quality."

But the agencies exist in a highly political atmosphere where the Secretary of Education determines which agencies are recognized. All I can learn about the process is that their accreditation standards are reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education and must meet certain criteria. Accreditation by a recognized agency is part of the requirements for institutions to participate in federal student aid programs. Further, Ed.gov asserts that "Many employers in the United States only recognize degrees earned from institutions accredited by an accrediting agency recognized by the Secretary of Education." and "In some states, it can be illegal to use a degree from an institution that is not accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency, unless approved by the state licensing agency." So, the chain of influence becomes apparent.

And, as I pointed out, the accrediting agencies' tight vested way of announcing decisions really smacks of a highly political entity.

Is this the next "Big" under attack? Has the Obama White House singled out"Big College" or "Big Diploma" or whatever they decide to name it? Is it a coincidence that on June 19, five Democrat Senators called for investigation and new regulation of for-profit colleges and universities and on June 30, Dana College loses its accreditation over its purchase by a for-profit investor? Even if it is just coincidence, the DoE and Congress have started rolling against those who have the audacity to make a profit whilst delivering an education. They've armed themselves with terms such as "Diploma Mill" and "Accreditation Shopping." If there is one thing I know about the anti-capitalist left, they invent a vocabulary, then they attack with it.

Monday, July 5, 2010

D.C. killed my school

You may already be aware that hottest topic on the Department of Education's agenda these days surrounds the issue of accredited nonprofit colleges and universities being purchased by for-profit entities. Given the current political climate in Washington, it should be no surprise that DOE's stance is decidedly against such events taking place, regardless of whatever merits there may be. There is even a snarky term applied to the practice: "Accreditation Shopping".

I won't say that abuses could not or have not occurred in such transactions, but I must point out that the term itself belies the realities of such a purchase taking place. A company buying a school does not automatically receive the accreditation of its purchase; it must submit a "Change of Control" request. In essence, the school is renewing its accreditation at that time, albeit, with a new and peculiar type of scrutiny.

Now, accreditation is not granted by the government, but it is required if a school is to receive any government monies. The unfortunate state of higher education at present is that most schools will find it impossible to operate without that money. Furthermore, no one wants to go to an unaccredited institution. Thus, accrediting agencies are under enormous pressure from Washington to bend with the political winds regarding education. So, if D.C. doesn’t want accredited nonprofit schools being bought by for-profit entities, the accrediting agencies are the tool to keep that from happening.

So, why do I care about any of this? Indeed, why do I even know about any of this? Well, it seems my Alma Matter, 126-year-old Dana College of Blair, NE, is one of the first to fall prey to the latest political attitudes on this subject. I don’t want to retell the whole story, frankly I’m exhausted with is, but here is link to one of the most comprehensive early articles from the Lincoln Journal Star. Here’s another, interesting one.

As an alum of Dana College, I've been monitoring the situation closely, and while I won’t diminish the role of the school leadership in allowing the college to arrive at the financial state it is in, it looks to me that the Higher Learning Commission pulled a fast one on Dana. The school acted in good faith to fulfill all the HLC's requests and address their concerns only to be turned on at the end.

The purchasing entity, the Dana Education Corporation (mind the name) was formed solely for the purpose of acquiring and strengthening the school based upon it's established mission. Kevin Abourezk of the Lincoln Journal Star states the situation most succinctly when he writes, "In denying Dana College's request for continuing accreditation, the Higher Learning Commission essentially rejected the proposed buyers' assertions they would retain the college's mission."

In a related Omaha World Herald story, Dana's board chairman and the president of the DEC are both sited believing that the accrediting body made its decision to send a message — that it's going to be much tougher for for-profit groups to buy nonprofit colleges than in the past — rather than simply reacting to the facts of Dana's specific situation.

At this time, the college, with support from various Nebraska leaders, including the governor, hope to pressure the HLC into reconsidering its decision. Of course, there is no formal appeal process, nor are the official reasons for denial of accreditation released to the public, or even the requesting institution, for that matter.

These practices, when viewed along with the matter at hand, put one question in my mind: "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"