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HLC: Too Big to Fail?

May 31, 2010

For a number of years, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools was a trendsetter by accrediting solely Internet distance learning institutions and for-profit universities. University of Phoenix is accredited by “North Central” as are Jones International, Northcentral, American Public University, Western Governor’s University, and American InterContinental University. The other five regional accrediting associations, with one exception, have resisted the accreditation of solely Internet-based degree granting institutions. That has earned HLC the animosity of the U.S. Department of Education which, on December 17, 2009, sent HLC an “alert” to North Central’s president, Dr. Sylvia Manning, informing her that HLC’s charter to accredit institutions authorized by the Department may be revoked.

Last week the Department of Education reaffirmed its intent to revoke North Central’s charter.

Now some may think that HLC is too big to fail, but in light of comments made by Deputy Undersecretary of Education Robert Shireman, I’m not so sure. At a meeting of state education regulators he specifically referred to use of the Office of the Inspector General to assure that accrediting associations maintain standards.

Inspectors General don’t usually leave their cubicles to make policy, so Shireman’s public statement about the Department’s Inspector General in this instance affirms that he personally instigated action against HLC. That is significant in light of the Obama Administration’s use of extreme force to transform entire industries. Healthcare, Student lending, Banking have been subjected to massive uses of force to redirect “profits” to service to the public interest—as defined by radicals shaping policy in the Obama Administration.

Clearly, HLC is in deep doo doo, not to mention the Administration’s gunsights. HLC is not likely to escape sanctions unless it radically changes policies and promises never again to accredit a for profit distance learning institution.

That’s the best that can come from the situation in which HLC finds itself. But, what if that isn’t enough, and Bob Shireman wants Phoenix’s scalp.

What would happen if the U.S. Department of Education actually acted on its threat to revoke HLC’s charter? Or, to phrase it another way, is HLC too big to fail?

HLC is not too big to fail.

Under existing procedures, those 1,000 colleges and universities currently accredited by HLC would be given a grace period to obtain accreditation elsewhere. And no doubt the former domicile restrictions that require institutions located in an accreditation “region” to seek accreditation in the region of domicile will be removed.

By closing down HLC and compelling HLC accredited institutions to seek accreditation in, say, WASC, Middle States or SACS, that do not accredit for profit Internet institutions, the bane of Bob Shireman’s existence will have been removed. No more University of Phoenix, no more Kaplan Education, Corinthian, American Public University, Northcentral, Capella and all those nasty for-profits that have been gobbling up all those Title IV federal tuition subsidies.

So, is HLC too big to fail?

Not at all, which is why HLC’s executives have taken the posture of a supplicant and promised never, never again, to accredit a for profit distance learning institution.

Besides capitulation to the U.S. Department of Education’s demands, what are HLC’s options?

Fortunately, this is still a free society and HLC has several options. For example, HLC’s executives can hit the road and meet with the Governors of all 19 states in HLC’s region and ask them for their political support.

It can threaten federal legal action based on the fact that the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Education has acted without seeking the advice and consent of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity.

In 2008 NACIQI offended members of Congress and consequently Congress reorganized NACIQI.  NACIQI members now represent a broader spectrum of the higher education marketplace. Shireman knew that it would be futile to seek NACIQI’s complicity in this attack on HLC, so he acted unilaterally. I doubt that is legal.

Until this issue is resolved in favor of HLC, higher tuition costs at all those traditional institutions that don’t offer online programs will increase. When the parents and grandparents of millions of students who think that Dick and Jane deserve second and third mortgages on the family homestead see those tuition increase, all hell will break loose.

HLC stands to lose nothing if it fights the Obama Administration and it will lose the respect of the higher education community if it capitulates.

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