Accreditors Must Stop Letting Failing Colleges Off the Hook

Accreditors Must Stop Letting Failing Colleges Off the Hook
Jeff Morehead/The Chronicle-Tribune via AP
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If you’ve heard the criticisms of college accreditors, you may believe they fritter away all their time on superficial assessments — counting books in the library or checking faculty credentials, for example — while turning a blind eye to outcomes like low graduation rates and other weightier measures of an institution’s quality.

But that’s only half-true. Yes, accreditors do need to take student outcomes much more seriously. But they are closer to doing so than even many policy wonks realize.

The private agencies known as accreditors are tasked with evaluating whether a college is of high enough quality to access federal financial aid dollars. Often portrayed as derelict in their duty, accreditors have been the target of  headlines like “The Watchdogs of College Education Rarely Bite” and “College Accreditors Need Higher Standards.”

This criticism is certainly warranted. Each year, the U.S. Department of Education provides nearly $130 billion in student grants and loans to help 13 million students attend more than 6,000 colleges. But many will never graduate. For example, among bachelor’s degree-seeking students at public universities, an estimated four in 10 do not finish. Those that don’t are much more likely to have trouble repaying student loans, often with catastrophic long-term financial consequences. In fact, half of borrowers that eventually default are students that never graduate.

While students bear these grave risks, colleges rarely if ever receive sanctions or lose accreditation for their failure to serve students well. However, our new report shows that accreditors already have some of the tools needed to adopt a more results-based approach.

Among the seven regional accreditors that mostly oversee public and non-profit colleges, most collect numerous outcomes measures every year, including enrollment and graduation rate data. Four of the seven collect default rates and two have recently begun collection student loan repayment rates annually, with others announcing plans to do the same. National agencies, which oversee mostly for-profit, career-focused colleges, collect data down to the program level and at least ostensibly require colleges to meet minimum benchmarks to remain accredited.

However, all of that collected data isn’t used for accountability in the way it should be. In the case of regional accreditors, the data collected annually are not well connected to the standards used to evaluate colleges. There are no minimum standards of acceptable performance on outcomes, like graduation rates, so even the lowest performers pass the bar. Instead, the primary focus of regional agencies is making sure colleges have a codified process for improving their education. Less attention is paid to the actual results achieved.

In its accreditation review, for example, a small public four-year college in Vermont reported a four-year graduation rate of between 15 and 17 percent, and a six-year rate hovering in the mid-30s, a number it acknowledged was unacceptably low. Although it had taken steps to improve, its efforts have had little effect. The college also noted that it continues to strategize on ways to improve its low performance.

In response, the accreditor review team commended the college for its commitment to student success and to improvement. In other words, its mere efforts to improve the persistently low graduation rates were good enough, even though there has been no actual improvement on an abysmal performance. The college was approved to continue collecting student and taxpayer money for a full 10 more years.

National agencies are better at connecting their standards to the student-outcomes data that they collect, but the result of the process is usually just as disappointing. These agencies have stricter rules but then make considerable exceptions when a college fails to meet a benchmark. As a result, poor performing colleges have little incentive to improve.

In one such case, a national agency acted to cap enrollment at one of its schools with systemic student achievement problems in November 2012. These problems were widespread and included performance below student-outcomes benchmarks at nine of the school’s 10 programs. The issues continued over the next five years and although the accreditor took many actions —  including warnings, probation, and an order to show cause — and eventually revoked approval of baccalaureate programs, the college remains accredited, on warning, and collects student and taxpayer money.

As gatekeepers to federal aid dollars, accrediting agencies must ensure colleges are providing a quality education and that America’s higher education system is truly a generator of social and economic mobility. The current lack of true accountability allows accreditors to avoid addressing the worst outcomes, and the system thus fails to help institutions improve their service to students in a tangible way.

Regional accreditors should implement mandatory minimum performance levels that trigger meaningful action and require improvement. National accreditors must set meaningful benchmarks and take action against low-performers instead of giving them a get-out-of- jail-free card.

Fortunately, there is a path to fixing this problem. The opportunity to ensure strong student outcomes in postsecondary education exists — accreditors just have to be willing to take it.

Antoinette Flores is an Associate Director on the Postsecondary Education Team at the Center for American Progress.

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