I recently participated in one of five Department of Education working groups engaged in formulating the recommendations that were discussed at the Department's "National Higher Education Transformation Summit" in Washington, DC on March 21-22. Our working group made recommendations for "Enhancing Affordability, Decreasing Costs, and Promoting Productivity." The other working groups made recommendations for "Aligning K-12 and Higher Education Expectations," "Increasing Need-Based Aid for Access and Success," "Using Accreditation to Support and Emphasize Student Learning Outcomes," and "Serving Adults and other Nontraditional Students."
The summit program was titled "Committing to Advance Postsecondary Education for all Americans," and the summit was organized to advance the agenda of "A Test of Leadership," the report completed in 2006 by the Commission of the Future of Higher Education appointed by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in 2005. In addition to giving us participants an opportunity to hear from Secretary Spellings and Under Secretary Sara Martinez Tucker, the day-long summit provided an opportunity for each of the working groups to engage with a larger group of experts who had not participated in the working group's deliberations to that point. The larger group included some members of the Commission.
Among the follow-up initiatives from the summit will be a number of regional summits organized to increase the opportunity to interact with the Department of Education as it advances its action agenda around some of the Commission's recommendations.
It is by now clear that the Department, through its negotiated rule-making process, is exerting great pressure on accrediting organizations to set requirements for measuring and openly reporting learning outcomes in a way that permits comparisons among peer institutions. The resistance of some higher education leaders to this pressure is not surprising, and the outcome of the resulting learning accountability debate should become apparent in the near future. The Department clearly means "business," and changes in the accreditation process appear likely.