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The Federal Takeover of Higher Education

August 30, 2010

(Updated from a post originally on The John William Pope Center, from March 8, 2007)

Two events occurred in Washington, DC, in late February that could foreshadow a significant decline in the independence of American colleges and universities.

First, representatives of accrediting associations, state universities, and private colleges engaged in negotiated ‘rule-making’ with representatives of the Department of Education. This rule-making was to establish procedures by which college students are tested, and by which colleges and universities will be compared on the basis of that testing. The other event was even more ominous — an announcement that actions would be taken to control the independent system of accreditation of American higher education by establishing a national accreditation foundation.

The federal camel already has much more than its nose into the higher education tent and these developments presage a substantial increase in federal control.

The rules to be negotiated—and universally imposed upon American colleges and universities—were chosen by the U.S. Department of Education. As this report reveals, the U.S. Department of Education asserts that it has the power to make new rules that will be binding on all higher education without Congressional approval.

Though some independent observers saw this demonstration of force coming long before the negotiators met, the accrediting associations were shocked. They still seem to believe that they are private, voluntary, associations of member institutions.

From the day she was confirmed, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has expressed concern that higher education is not accountable for the billions of federal subsidies on which it relies and that higher education costs too much. Attempting to change this dynamic, she created a Commission on the Future of Higher Education and charged it with developing recommendations for higher education reform.

At the time, most observers saw this commission as just another blue ribbon panel that would issue a report and go quietly into the night. What was not understood was that Secretary Spellings believes that she has the authority to formulate new regulations based on the findings of her Commission. Suddenly the “issue papers” produced by her Commission have to be read for what they were intended—a blueprint for the federal takeover of higher education.

Consider, for example, the regulatory proposals found in the issue paper authored by Vickie Schray, executive director of the Commission, and lead ‘negotiator’ for the Department at the rule-making sessions.

  • Tighten the standards by which accrediting associations are chartered by the U.S. government so that they “meet both public and private interests.”
  • Require accrediting associations to have Boards of Governors with representatives from “employers, federal and state government.”
  • Require that peer reviews be conducted by “certified independent reviewers who are experts in the application of national accreditation standards.”
  • Emphasize “performance outcomes” in school evaluations.
  • Standards should be generated that define “what students should know.”

To accomplish all of this, Ms. Schray recommends “major transformation in the accreditation process” based on “national if not global standards and processes.” Given the importance of accreditation, such a transformation to a great extent puts the federal government in charge of our higher education system.

The purpose of rule-making was to put the Commission’s recommendations into effect and three of those recommendations took precedence:

  1. To require every college and university to adopt a similar methodology for assessing learning outcomes, with the objective of establishing national statistics to compare institutional performance;
  2. To regulate accrediting associations by means of a national accreditation system;
  3. To allow free transfer of academic credits between national and regionally accredited colleges and universities.

Negotiators from the higher education sector attempted to modify the Department’s approach by rejecting the need for what the Department called a “core set of student achievement measures, both quantitative and qualitative.” The accrediting associations have long had their own standards and reject the idea that an institution’s performance can be measured accurately by a “one size fits all” formula.

Yorktown University’s observer at these meetings reported that the Department’s Vickie Schray was taken aback by the dissension. “The law requires accrediting agencies to have a standard for student achievement,” Schray said. “The law requires” means that the Department will do what the law specifies—and those affected will have to obey. The ‘negotiated’ rule-making, therefore, was a process to formalize how the Department wants to enforce the law, not a procedure to establish rules in a collaborative manner.

When Ms. Schray made that statement, negotiators knew that despite their efforts to modify the Department’s intended rules, at the end of the day the Department would control the outcome.

That became all the more clear when Under Secretary of Education Sara Martinez Tucker said in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education that the negotiated ‘rule-making’ would be by-passed and an “education summit” would be held. “The summit will be held in Washington on March 22 and will include some 300 selected participants from the worlds of academe, business, philanthropy, and elementary and secondary education. Over the course of the day, participants will complete a list of 25 “action items” and assign responsibility to states, colleges, and other groups for putting them into practice,” she said.

The Department of Education has spoken openly and directly to America’s colleges and universities, telling them to wait for ‘action items’ from Washington that will affirm that American higher education is an appendage of the federal government. Until now, the variety and diversity of more than four thousand academic institutions of higher learning in the United States has withstood the desires of federal politicians to define what is taught in those institutions and what their standards should be. All that will change with the “education summit.”

With a national system of control in place, higher education will be subject to a top-down process of control by federal officials. That approach has worked badly with K-12 education in the states and will have the same bad effects on our higher education system. American higher education can and should perform better, but regulation by bureaucrats in Washington is not the way to go about it.

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