Why Accreditation Reform May Benefit Hispanic and Black Students Most

Posted By Derek Johnson on March 23, 2016 at 9:04 am
Why Accreditation Reform May Benefit Hispanic and Black Students Most

When it comes to higher education reform, doing a better job of accrediting and evaluating individual colleges for quality and student outcomes is at the top of the list for many policymakers. In just the past year, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a hearing on reforming the accreditation process, the Obama administration went to court to force for-profit schools to better prepare their students for “gainful employment” and also lost a battle to create a new College Ratings system to track data on post-degree earnings and job placement.

While policymakers hope these reforms will benefit college students overall, the push to emphasize quality may have a more profound impact on minority groups, particularly blacks and Hispanics.

That’s because these two groups tend to make up a disproportionate percentage of students enrolled in for-profit schools, where the concerns about quality remain the highest. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, black and Hispanic students account for 45 percent of the student population at four-year for-profit colleges and 52 percent of the population at two-year for-profit schools. By comparison, these two groups only make up 27 percent of the student population at four-year public universities and 23 percent of four-year private university students.

For-profit schools are also more likely to push their students to take out private (rather than federal) loans. These loans are not subsidized and lack even the small consumer protections that accompany federal student aid, like fixed interest rates and income-based repayment. This means many Hispanic and minority students – who already come from low-income backgrounds – are disproportionately exposed to some of the harshest forms of lending in higher education.

Raising standards without reducing access

Most experts believe that accreditation reform will have the most dramatic impact on the for-profit college industry, which is currently under fire for a series of business practices and outcomes that critics believe is exacerbating both the student debt crisis and the income and wealth gap between white and minority students. University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Sara Goldrick-Rab told left-leaning website Think Progress that there are a variety of reasons these groups tend to gravitate towards for-profit institutions.

“It’s quite clear that students of color face a lot of barriers in the current system. They are far less likely to have parents that completed college and they are far more likely to live in areas where attending traditional institutions is not the norm,” said Goldrick-Rab. “For-profit colleges, partly to their credit, spend a lot of time thinking about how to recruit [those] students. It isn’t happening just because students of color think for-profits are really attractive. It’s happening because the current system isn’t serving students of color very well.”

This presents a conundrum about how to raise for-profit college standards without sacrificing the access they provide to low-income and minority students. For years, for-profit schools and accreditors have rejected what they fear will become a one-size-fits-all standard for student outcomes, claiming that it will do the most harm to schools making a concerted effort to reach students who would otherwise be shut out of the system. Right now, one of the biggest issues in higher education for Hispanics is boosting college enrollment. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2013, just 15 percent of Hispanics between the ages of 25-29 had bachelor’s degrees, compared to 20 percent for blacks, 40 percent for non-Hispanic whites and 60 percent for Asians.

Doctor Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, echoes Goldrick-Rab’s sentiments. While acknowledging that most of the worst trends in quality and student outcomes were “heavily skewed” towards the for-profit sector, he also points to the lack of investment in higher education at the state level. This means there is not enough capacity at public universities he explains, and, as a result, Hispanics are pushed towards private and for-profit school options.

“I think this is more an issue of access and debt or lack of investments on the part of government, particularly the states,” said Flores. “Especially when it comes to capacity and accommodating the rising number of Hispanics in higher education.”

In a 2014 report, Peter Smith and Leslie Parrish of The Center for Responsible Lending called the loan practices of the for-profit school industry “predatory” and dismissed the argument that their outreach to at-risk demographic groups excuses their lending practices.

“For-profit colleges argue that these poor results should be excused because they enroll students of color, who have a higher risk of default. But a consumer’s pre-existing risk level does not justify predatory lending behavior—quite the opposite,” write Smith and Parrish.

Obstacles to reform

Because they make up such a large share of the for-profit school population, Hispanics and other minorities may stand to benefit the most from a push for better college quality. However, it’s unlikely the higher education industry will get behind accreditation reform if policymakers continue to push for student outcome data. Last year, when the Obama administration attempted to set up a college ratings system to track student outcomes, an alliance of accreditation agencies and universities from the for-profit, private and public sectors came together to successfully lobby against it. The Department of Education wound up releasing a less ambitious version of The College Scorecard, but administration officials have said it does not go far enough.

Flores’ organization, which is made up mostly of college administrators and faculty for Hispanic Serving Institutions, opposed the Obama administration’s ratings system, saying it would put unrealistic mandates on colleges to collect data that they don’t have the money or resources to track. “If you go to the kind of indicators [the government was asking for], which are way beyond the capacity of institutions to provide, you run into problems,” said Flores.

Flores said that individual school retention rates, the number of years it takes a student to graduate and overall graduation rates were all “good, solid indicators” that schools would be comfortable being held accountable for.

Jan Friis, vice president of government affairs at the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, said during a speech on March 14, 2016, that accreditors need to recognize there is a disconnect between how they and the public view their role. “Right now, there is a mismatch between current law and regulation and what the public expects of accreditors,” said Friis. “Accreditors really need to acknowledge their public role going forward and be explicit about what they do and what they don’t do.”

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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