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U.S. Department of Education

Staff Report
to the
Senior Department Official
on
Recognition Compliance Issues

RECOMMENDATION PAGE

1.
Agency:   Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (1952/2008)
                  (The dates provided are the date of initial listing as a recognized agency and the date of the agency’s last grant of recognition.)
 
2.
Action Item:   Compliance Report
 
3.
Current Scope of Recognition:   The accreditation and preaccreditation (“Candidacy status”) of postsecondary degree-granting educational institutions in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington, and the accreditation of programs offered via distance education within these institutions.
 
4.
Requested Scope of Recognition:   Same as above.
 
5.
Date of Advisory Committee Meeting:   December, 2015
 
6.
Staff Recommendation:   Department staff recommends to accept the compliance report and continue the agency's recognition until the Department reaches a final decision regarding the outcome of the compliance report on Sections 602.24(a) and 602.24(b) in response to the Secretary's appeal decision, which is due January 11, 2016.
 
7.
Issues or Problems:  


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

 
 

PART I: GENERAL INFORMATION ABOUT THE AGENCY

 
The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) is a regional institutional accreditor that accredits (or preaccredits) over 150 degree granting institutions in seven states, and including those programs offered via distance
education within these institutions.

Most of the institutions accredited by NWCCU use the Secretary’s recognition of the agency to establish eligibility to participate in the Title IV, HEA student financial assistance programs. Therefore, the agency must meet the separate and independent requirements.
 
 
Recognition History
 
NWCCU received initial recognition in 1952 and has received periodic renewal of recognition since that time.

The last full review of the agency was conducted in December 2013, at which time the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI or the Committee) found the agency out of compliance with 10 sections of the Secretary's Criteria for Recognition, and Department staff found the agency out of compliance with 12 sections. Both NACIQI and Department staff recommended the continued recognition of the agency and that it come into compliance within 12 months and submit a compliance report on the deficient sections. The senior Department official, Acting Assistant Secretary Brenda Dann-Messier, concurred with the recommendation of NACIQI, and found the agency out of compliance with 10 sections, granted continued recognition of the agency, and required that it come into compliance within 12 months and submit a compliance report. NWCCU disagreed with the findings in five sections and appealed the decision regarding those sections to the Secretary. On December 11, 2014, Secretary Arne Duncan reversed the decision concerning three sections, and affirmed the decision concerning two sections, 602.24(a) and 602.24(b). The Secretary also granted continued recognition pending the submission of a compliance report on Sections 602.24(a) and 602.24(b) within 12 months.

This compliance report is in response to the finding by the senior Department official regarding the five sections of the Secretary's Criteria for Recognition that were not appealed by NWCCU - Sections 602.15(a)(5), 602.16(a)(1)(ix), 602.20(b), 602.23(c), and 602.26(d).

Since the agency's last review in December 2013, the Department has received, reviewed and resolved one complaint.


PART II: SUMMARY OF FINDINGS

 
§602.15 Administrative and fiscal responsibilities
(5) Representatives of the public on all decision-making bodies; and

 
Previous issue: When the agency’s petition was last reviewed in December 2013, Department staff found the agency had policies to ensure representatives of the public on all of its decision-making bodies; however, the agency did not provide documentation of how it ensures the public representatives meet all parts of the Secretary's definition.

Discussion: In response to the Department's findings, the agency submitted its revised by-laws and conflict of interest policy, which include the Secretary's definition of a public representative. The agency also stated that prospective members of its decision-making bodies (Commission or Appeals Board) would be asked to review the requirements of a public member; however the stated procedures nor the written policies describe how the agency would ensure the public representatives meet all parts of the Secretary's definition.

In addition, the agency stated that it had not had the opportunity to apply the revised policy to prospective members of its decision-making bodies (Commission or Appeals Board); however the agency did not provide information or documentation that the current members of its decision-making bodies meet the Secretary's definition of a public member.

Analyst Remarks to Response:
In response to the draft staff analysis, the agency provided additional information and documentation to demonstrate compliance with this section. Specifically, the agency provided signed statements, for the two current public members of the commission, attesting that they meet the federal regulatory requirement concerning public members and the agency's conflict of interest policy.
 

§602.16 Accreditation and preaccreditation standards
(a)(1)(ix) Record of student complaints received by, or available to, the agency.

 
Previous issue: When the agency’s petition was last reviewed in December 2013, Department staff found the agency had adopted a policy to ensure that it reviews an institution's record of student complaints; however, the agency did not provide documentation to demonstrate that it adhered to that policy.

Discussion: In response to the Department's findings, the agency submitted examples of self-studies and on-site evaluation reports that include the review of an institution's record of student complaints. However, one example (Tab 6) includes an on-site evaluation report that included a concern regarding whether the institution has a policy that clearly explains to students and other stakeholders how it deals with complaints; however no additional information or documentation, such as the institution's response or any Commission action, was provided to demonstrate how the concern was resolved to meet the agency's policy.

Analyst Remarks to Response:
In response to the draft staff analysis, the agency provided additional information and documentation regarding its review of student complaints within its accreditation review process. The agency provided a detailed narrative of its review (see attachment) along with documentation to verify the institution's student complaint policy, and therefore adherence to the agency's policy regarding the review of student complaints.
 

§602.20 Enforcement of standards
(b) If the institution or program does not bring itself into compliance within the specified period, the agency must take immediate adverse action unless the agency, for good cause, extends the period for achieving compliance.

 
Previous issue: When the agency’s petition was last reviewed in December 2013, Department staff found the agency provided its policy and described its process for granting an extension for good cause; however, the example provided (Tab 102) did not provide enough information and documentation to demonstrate that the agency adhered to its policy, to include whether the institution was able to bring itself into compliance within the "reasonable" timeframe outlined in the agency's policy

Discussion: In response to the Department's findings, the agency provided the final action for the example provided in the petition reviewed in December 2013, as well as an example of an institution returning to compliance within the specified timeframe.

The information and documentation provided regarding the previous example provided (Tab 102) does not appear to demonstrate that the agency is enforcing compliance timeframes in accordance with Department expectations and generally accepted practices within the higher education community. Specifically, the documentation states that the institution was out-of-compliance on an issue ("Recommendation 2") from an on-site evaluation report in fall 2008 until it was deemed in compliance by the Commission in February 2014. Agency correspondence from February 2011 stated the "timeline to come into compliance is extended until January 2012," with no information or documentation concerning any additional extension granted. The example does not demonstrate that the agency takes an adverse action when an institution does not bring itself into compliance within a specified period, as required by this section.

The Department expects that good cause extensions are granted infrequently, under exceptional circumstances, and for an very limited and definite period of time.

Analyst Remarks to Response:
In response to the draft staff analysis, the agency provided additional information and documentation regarding its use of a good cause extension. Specifically, the agency provided information on how the commission decides to grant a good cause extension and the revised language used in notification letters, to include a recent example of its use. The agency previously provided a complete example of the application of its policy for an institution that was able to bring itself into compliance within the good cause extension time period. The agency also stated that it has not had the opportunity to apply its policy to an institution that has remained out of compliance.
 

§602.23 Operating procedures all agencies must have.
(c) The accrediting agency must--
(1) Review in a timely, fair, and equitable manner any complaint it receives against an accredited institution or program that is related to the agency's stan­dards or procedures.The agency may not complete its review and make a decision regarding a complaint unless, in accordance with published procedures, it ensures that the institution or program has sufficient opportunity to provide a response to the complaint;

(2) Take follow-up action, as necessary, including enforcement action, if necessary, based on the results of its review; and

(3) Review in a timely, fair, and equitable manner, and apply unbiased judgment to, any complaints against itself and take follow-up action, as appropriate, based on the results of its review.

 
Previous issue: When the agency’s petition was last reviewed in December 2013, Department staff found the agency revised its complaint procedures; however, the agency must make additional revisions to its complaint policy, document the review of complaints more thoroughly, and provide documentation of the timely, fair, and equitable review of a complaint in accord with its revised procedures.

Discussion: In response to the Department's findings, the agency provided its revised complaint policy (Tab 23) to address the necessary revisions previously noted. The agency also provided a detailed narrative and documentation concerning the complaint that was included within the agency's previous petition. However, the information and documentation do not provide any additional clarity as to how the complaint was investigated or when the complaint was closed, most notably as the agency states that the complaint was closed in 2012, but also forwarded the complaint for review by the on-site evaluation team in 2014, and provided a determination letter in 2015.

The narrative and documentation provided also includes a new complaint, which from the documentation does not appear to have been reviewed via the agency's complaint policy. Specifically, the complaint was filed in August 2014 (Tab 16) and the response from the agency referenced the complaint from 2012 (which was not mentioned in the August 2014 complaint letter) and stated the matter as closed (Tab 17). The August 2014 complainants responded that the complaint involved non-compliant areas since 2012 (Tab 18). The agency responded that the complaint was reviewed independently and would be forwarded to the fall 2014 on-site evaluation team as a third-party comment (Tab 19). The agency provided no information or documentation as to how the complaint was reviewed for compliance with the agency's standards nor its status in that letter. The agency documented the review of the 2012 and 2014 complaints in the January 2015 notification letter (Tabs 21 & 22).

The agency referenced a December 19, 2014, letter, from the Department regarding this issue in the narrative. That letter included information of another complaint submitted on September 29, 2014, against the same institution but from different individuals and that complaint is not included within the agency's response to this section. The agency must provide the complaint and detailed information and documentation of the agency's review and resolution in response to this draft staff analysis.

The agency did not provide sufficient information or documentation of the processing of complaints since December 2013, to demonstrate effective application of its revised complaint policy and procedures, to include sufficient documentation of the timely, fair, and equitable review and resolution of complaints.

Analyst Remarks to Response:
In response to the draft staff analysis, the agency provided additional information and documentation concerning the review of the previous complaint (August 10, 2014). The additional information provided a comprehensive overview of the review of the complaint, even if that information was not included in the original documentation, as well as the rationale for providing the complaint to the on-site evaluation team. This information also addressed the additional complaint filed on September 29, 2014, referenced in the Department’s December 19, 2014, letter.

The agency also provided comprehensive information and documentation concerning a different complaint (dated September 26, 2014), which demonstrates that the agency followed its complaint policy, to include the timely, fair, and equitable review and resolution of complaints.
 

§602.26 Notification of accrediting decisions
(d) For any decision listed in paragraph (b)(2) of this section, makes available to the Secretary, the appropriate State licensing or authorizing agency, and the public, no later than 60 days after the decision, a brief statement summarizing the reasons for the agency's decision and the official comments that the affected institu­tion or program may wish to make with regard to that decision, or evidence that the affected institution has been offered the opportunity to provide official comment; and

 
Previous issue: When the agency’s petition was last reviewed in December 2013, Department staff found the agency provided its policy and a sample notice; however, the sample did not include any indication of whether the institution was provided an opportunity to comment.

Discussion: In response to the Department's findings, the agency provided a revised sample notice, to include a statement regarding an institution's opportunity to comment. The agency stated that it has not had the opportunity to use the revised notice and therefore, could not provide documentation to demonstrate compliance.
 
 

PART III: THIRD PARTY COMMENTS

 
The Department did not receive any written third-party comments regarding this agency.