Fixing the Accreditation System: Will Congress Take Action in the Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act?

Posted By Eliana Osborn on December 2, 2015 at 9:13 am
Fixing the Accreditation System: Will Congress Take Action in the Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act?

If you want to use federal student aid, the college you attend must be accredited.  If you want to be able to transfer credits to another school and have them count towards a degree, they’ll have to be earned at an accredited college.  The power of accreditors is tremendous, as institutions must follow their guidelines and requests if they hope to continue enrolling students.

Accrediting agencies are private and nonprofit.  They must register with the Department of Education and serve as “reliable authorities concerning the quality of education or training offered.”  Recently, there has been concern that these agencies aren’t doing much, especially in the wake of big problems at for-profit schools like Corinthian Colleges.

In response, the Obama Administration has announced executive action requiring accreditors to reveal more of the information or data used to make accrediting decisions.  With greater transparency, the goal is for schools to be more easily measured as to performance.  However, the Department of Education does not set the standards of how accreditation is awarded, as this is presently disallowed by law.  To change that, as many people believe is important, Congress would have to address accreditation in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Because accreditation is tied to federal education dollars, the agencies involved are expected to keep an eye on how schools are doing administratively and educationally.  The College Scorecard initiative announced last summer is one attempt at making it easier to compare different schools.  With accreditation changes, that information would be viewable in terms of which agency schools are more successful by different measures.

According to the Department of Education fact sheet about transparency aims, “accreditors have provided little accountability for some poor-performing institutions and that for many accreditors, student outcomes are far down the priority list.”  As Secretary Arne Duncan has said, the agencies are like dogs that don’t bark.  They go through the motions but rarely sanction schools even when there are serious problems.

The November executive actions cover five points:

  • Publishing each accreditor’s standards for evaluating student outcomes
  • Increasing transparency in the accreditation process and in institutional oversight
  • Increasing coordination within the Department and among accreditors, other agencies, and states to improve oversight
  • Publishing key student and institutional metrics for postsecondary institutions arranged by accreditors
  • Promoting greater attention to outcomes within current accreditor review processes

Though these steps will improve transparency and shed light on a mysterious process, many argue that they do not go nearly far enough in fixing the accreditation system.  Instead, proponents for changing the accreditation system hold that it is up to Congress to take action to provide a means for correlating accrediting procedures across agencies as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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