Accreditation Agencies Find Themselves a Target as Lawmakers Ponder Higher Ed Reform
Posted By Derek Johnson on July 21, 2015 at 12:31 pm
With the first renewal of the Higher Education Act (HEA) since 2008 coming up, the word “reform” may be the most popular phrase thrown around by lawmakers and policy wonks. One of the major aspects up for review? The way schools are evaluated and accredited. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions said during a speech to the American Enterprise Institute Thursday that doing away with the geographic nature of accreditation agencies was among the top priorities for reform.
“There seems to be less validity today of having regional accreditation agencies exclusively,” said Alexander.
The majority of work around accreditation is performed by six agencies that only compare universities and higher education institutions to other schools in the same area. Alexander said this approach didn’t make sense, adding that when he was president of the University of Tennessee he would frequently compare his programs and services to schools in different regions of the country.
In addition to the regional issue, questions about whether accrediting agencies have a conflict of interest when it comes to accurately evaluating the quality of institutional program have come to the forefront.
“I think there is a growing consensus that this is a system that is broken and has not worked well,” said Anne Neal, President and Founder of The American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “We took a voluntary peer review system and we assumed that we could then make it a quality assurance program and those two roles don’t really work well together. It’s a schizophrenic arrangement.”
The brunt of the criticism towards the accreditation process tends to fall on the way agencies handle the for-profit school industry, where there is significant disagreement about the value and quality of the courses being offered. While accreditation means that a school can accept federal student aid, it does not necessarily mean those courses are worth anything to the outside world. An investigation by The Wall Street Journal recently found that accrediting agencies rarely revoke their certification when evaluating low performing schools, and that when they do, these same schools can often successfully sue the agency or shop for approval at another. Students can often have difficulty getting credits transferred from for-profit schools to private or public universities, and this has a dramatic effect on their likelihood of graduation.
After Alexander’s speech, Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, said the criticism being lobbed is more about what accreditation agencies aren’t doing than it is about what they are. “I think [it’s] overblown in the sense that the focus is on criticizing, speaking to problems that accreditation has, when the issue is somewhat different. Policymakers want more from accreditation, and it’s the more on which we should be focused, Eaton said.
A study conducted last year by Paul Attenwell and David Monaghan of the City University of New York found that community college students who had difficulty transferring their credits to other institutions were far less likely to finish their degrees.
While the vast majority of college students still attend public and private universities, enrollment in for-profit schools has exploded over the past 25 years.
After reaching a peak of nearly 2 million students in 2010, enrollment in for-profit schools has begun to dip, but these schools still provide millions of students with education that is of questionable value. In theory, accreditation agencies are supposed to act as a third-party seal of approval to protect students from diploma mills. In practice, however, this is not always the case. Corinthian Colleges, which famously shut down earlier this year after a federal investigation revealed a bribery scheme to manipulate job placement rates, had several of their schools recertified for accreditation even as the investigation was taking place.
Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at The Center for American Progress said that while it’s unrealistic to expect small non-profits to hold multinational for-profit schools like Corinthian Colleges accountable by themselves, the standards used by these agencies to judge failure are so low that bad actors can skate by with little or no repercussions.
“I think you see this again and again where the focus seems to be so much on improvement that even when you see something that looks so fatally flawed that you can’t imagine a world in which it should possibly be allowed to improve because it’s basically fraud, [accreditation agencies] still try to say ‘well, just improve in a year and come back,’” said Miller.
Alexander said his committee wants to tweak the rules governing accreditation to streamline the process for high-performing institutions and allow agencies to focus more on bad actors.
“In other words, using a lighter touch on some universities so [accreditation agencies] can spend more of their time and resources on institutions clearly in need of greater oversight, and have the lighter touch on those that don’t,” he said.
Alexander said that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was receptive to bringing a bill to the floor this year, but that it may not get a full vote in the Senate until 2016.