Ed Dept green-lights virtual site visits for accreditors due to coronavirus

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Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Department of Education has expanded guidance issued to accreditors earlier this month about the level of flexibility they can offer colleges that are moving classes online due to the novel coronavirus.
  • In a memo this week, the department said accreditors could conduct site visits virtually at their discretion, though they would be expected to visit in-person at a later date. Virtual visits must be interactive, such as through phone and video calls, “rather than solely document reviews or exchanges of emails,” the guidance explains. 
  • The guidance comes as at least one accreditor said it plans to temporarily take most site visits remote and as others consider the option for some schools.

Dive Insight:

The department frames the allowance for virtual site visits as “a unique and temporary departure” from its typical requirements. And it defers to accreditors to decide when and how to use them. Historically, in-person visits had been the de facto approach.

Under the latest guidance, which aims to clarify a missive issued earlier this month, accreditors can also extend the term of accreditation for institutions whose renewal site visits were interrupted due to the virus. Likewise, the agency may provide an extension to institutions that are at risk of losing their accreditation but are unable to meet.

And it is temporarily waiving steps accreditors would otherwise have to take to develop and enact new policies, so long as the agency’s board approves the changes.

Accreditors Education Dive spoke with said the guidance was useful, though they expect to take advantage of it to varying degrees.

Last week, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), a regional accreditor, announced it would conduct its spring site visits in a virtual format. 

In an email to Education Dive, its president, Sonny Ramaswamy, wrote that member institutions may opt out “under extreme extenuating circumstances.” However, he explained, the agency “did not want to postpone the evaluations because the institutions are ready and our evaluators are in place.”

NWCCU’s roughly 30 accreditation visits scheduled for this season will occur on their planned dates starting in late March and running through early May. 

Other accreditors are conducting some spring site visits virtually. WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) will do roughly half of its remaining visits online, while the rest have mostly been rescheduled. 

Its president, Jamienne Studley, told Education Dive the agency is prioritizing schools that “had concerns that we felt we needed to follow up on sooner rather than later.”

Studley and Ramaswamy each said their agencies would explore ways to conduct parts of the review process virtually that may be complicated by moving it online. For instance, NWCCU is working with host institutions to set up online forums with various campus groups, including students and faculty members. Some items, such as physical infrastructure review, will be postponed to the follow-up visit required by the department for virtual reviews, Ramaswamy noted. 

Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education, told Education Dive the agency is rescheduling its spring site visits and, as of Wednesday afternoon, had opted not to do virtual visits, though she said they “wouldn’t rule it out.”

The Ed Department expects each agency will “resume normal practices as soon as reasonably possible.” In the meantime, the guidance explains, they should post information on their websites about how schools are using the temporary flexibilities. They should also record how the board voted on policies added or revised as a result of the situation stemming from the coronavirus.

Still, it will be difficult for the department and accreditors to keep track of the changes schools make under the relaxed rules in order to evaluate them later. That’s in part because accreditors nationwide are requiring different degrees of communication from colleges about how they are using the new flexibility afforded.

“It’s going to be a challenge to go back all of a sudden to normal processes, especially if you don’t have a good idea of what colleges have done in the interim,” said Antoinette Flores, director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, though she expects to see accreditors offering more guidance to colleges on the matter. 

Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy at New America, said that while accreditors’ guidance to colleges has been “all over the place,” the Ed Department could stand to instruct accreditors about expectations for record-keeping. 

Accreditors could also raise the bar, she added, “both to make sure they are conducting rigorous quality assurance and to kind of pitch in during a difficult time where everyone is trying to figure out how we can keep an eye on what’s happening.”

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