Higher Education bill and religious colleges

from The Chronicle of Higher Education

Provision in House Version of Higher Education Act Could Give Special Deference to Religious Colleges

By Thomas Bartlett

A provision in the bill to renew the Higher Education Act passed last week by the U.S. House of Representatives could force accreditors to give special deference to religious colleges.

The provision says accrediting bodies must take into account a college’s religious mission when evaluating the institution.

The change is being supported by a coalition of religious colleges, including Baylor University, Brigham Young University, and the University of Notre Dame. They say the provision is needed in case accreditors attempt to discriminate against them based on their religious mission, according to Gene Schaerr, a lawyer for the colleges. “Different religious colleges have had enough mild friction with accrediting agencies to think there should be a prophylactic rule on this issue,” Mr. Schaerr said.

Notre Dame decided to support the legislation after some “back-and-forth” with an accrediting agency, according to Dennis Brown, a spokesman for the university. He declined to be more specific.

James Odom, director of governmental relations at Baylor University, declined to say whether Baylor’s support for the bill was prompted by an experience with an accreditor. “We want to ensure that college and universities with religious missions continue to enjoy the freedom to pursue those missions,” Mr. Odom said.

But accreditors have long taken religious mission into account, according to Ralph A. Wolff, executive director of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges’ Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities. The Senate has yet to pass its version of the bill but, depending on the final language, Mr. Wolff is concerned about what it might mean to accreditors. “It could be neutral, or it could be designed to limit our role in evaluating academic performance and institutional operation,” Mr. Wolff said.

The intention, according to Mr. Schaerr, is not to handcuff accreditors. “It’s not a trump card,” but it says you have to give the college’s religious mission serious consideration, he said. “You have to let a religious university do what it wants unless you have a compelling reason on the other side.”

But even if that’s the intention, it might be applied more broadly — depending on the exact wording and its interpretation, according to Mr. Wolff. “No one can say what its ultimate impact could be,” he said. “It’s very possible that it could not significantly change anything we do. It’s also possible that it could be highly problematic.”

© 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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