Usually anyone trying to figure out where a committee or other body might be heading in a wide-ranging review of a complex topic is left to read the tea leaves of the many strands of conversation and stray statements.
The Education Department’s advisory committee on higher education accreditation made the job a little easier last week, though, as its members, at the end of a two-day forum, used a series of pink, blue and green sticky notes in which they identified the issues and ideas they plan to explore as their review continues in the coming months.
Cameron Staples, chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity and a Democratic state legislator from Connecticut, advised us tea-leaf readers not to read too much into the early preferences expressed by the panel during the Post-it process, in which they identified the issues they thought needed the most attention. Fewer than half of its 18 members were at the two-day meeting and heard the expansive discussion and the impassioned pleas of the many college officials and others who offered their opinions.
"I urge very significant caution to the weighing of preferences" that emerged from the panel’s Post-it exercise on Friday, Staples said. "The final product might look different" by the time the committee considers the next steps it wants to take in June.
College leaders and accrediting agency officials might wish they could hold the panel to the initial iteration of its agenda for the future. The areas of inquiry that gained the most support from the committee’s members — reducing regulatory burden on colleges and accreditors, more clearly defining the varying roles of accreditors, states and the federal government in ensuring colleges’ quality, and promulgating better data for consumers and policy makers on colleges’ performance — generally embraced steps the government might take to strengthen the existing peer-review process rather than significantly overhaul or junk it. It mostly included steps that would "do no harm," as Holiday Hart McKiernan, of the Lumina Foundation for Education, put it.
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