Accreditation agencies, the private organizations responsible for ensuring quality and gatekeeping institutional eligibility for federal loan and grant program participation, play a key role in higher education oversight and quality assurance. Accreditors are part of the regulatory “triad” in the sector: the U.S. Department of Education is responsible for regulating how institutions receive and use their federal financial aid; the states ensure institutions operating within their borders comply with local consumer protection law; and accreditors are the watchdogs tasked with making sure that institutions meet minimum quality standards. Each part of this triad plays a role in ensuring the higher education ecosystem protects and serves students.
Unfortunately, the accrediting system fails to ensure that federal aid flows only to high-quality programs. As a result, some have called for dismantling the accreditation system. However, reform and improvement, not eradication, should be the goal. Through reform, we can increase transparency and public participation in the accreditation process and strengthen accreditation standards for student achievement.
Through reform, we can increase transparency and public participation in the accreditation process and strengthen accreditation standards for student achievement.
This commentary provides an overview of issues in accreditation that require renewed focus and attention, including student achievement metrics and outcomes, review of written arrangements, and public participation. The need for improvement in these areas is one reason it is vital that the Department of Education continues with its plan for rulemaking on accreditation and other issues this year.
The Relationship between Accreditors and the Department of Education
Institutions of higher education must be accredited by a recognized accreditor in order to receive access to federal student loans and grants. Accreditors are subject to review by the Department of Education (ED) and a panel of bipartisan, appointed experts known as the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI). NACIQI advises the secretary of education on whether an accreditor is worthy of receiving ED recognition, but the ultimate decision about whether an accrediting agency is granted recognition is made by the Department of Education. Accreditation agencies come before NACIQI at least once every five years.
Accreditors seeking initial or renewed ED recognition must demonstrate their ability to make effective decisions as to institutional quality. Accreditors are likewise expected to commit to the goals of protecting students, increasing institutional capacity, and promoting quality.
Why Accreditation Matters
Institutional accreditors serve as gatekeepers for our nation’s generous federal aid system. In addition, whether an institution is accredited or not can have an effect on whether a student’s transfer credits will be accepted by another institution. In some cases, accreditation can affect a students’ ability to sit for credentialing exams. For example, law school graduates must attend an American Bar Association-accredited law school to be eligible to sit for the bar examination, passage of which is a requirement to practice law in most U.S. states.
Though some have complained that ED is too slow to remove recognition from agencies that don’t meet their obligation to provide quality oversight, others blame accreditors for not acting fast enough to remove accreditation from institutions that leave students worse off than if they never pursued higher education. In reality, accreditors, along with the states, have the potential to provide strong protections for students and prevent low-value programs and abusive or deceptive practices. When empowered to use the evidence available to them to take action, accreditors can be an effective first line of defense in protecting both students from predatory behavior and bad actors.
When empowered to use the evidence available to them to take action, accreditors can be an effective first line of defense in protecting both students from predatory behavior and bad actors.
The Department of Education should strengthen requirements for accreditors to collect, analyze, and disclose data about student outcomes.
Lawmakers and the public are calling for more data on college value and students’ return on investment. Unfortunately, when it comes to data collection and analysis, many accreditors are falling short. Few accreditors collect, analyze, or provide students with access to data on college costs, graduation and retention rate, or post-college earnings.
In recent years, legislators on both sides of the aisle have sought to increase higher education accountability by introducing legislation that would require institutions to report data about student outcomes and bills that would prohibit new federal student loans from going to programs that provide students with limited economic value and return on investment. Some accreditors like the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) Senior College and University Commission created data dashboards that collect information about student completion, finances, and post-graduation outcomes from publicly available sources to give students, families, and the public access to better data. However, accreditors are not required to collect this information. Moreover, many agencies that take the additional step of collecting outcomes data do not present information in a clear and concise manner.
This year, a NACIQI subcommittee report recommended that accrediting agencies more firmly establish standards for assessing student outcomes, and that ED require agencies to provide comments on what data they use to evaluate student achievement at accredited institutions. ED should adopt these recommendations. Accreditors should also be required to analyze the data they collect as part of their assessment of an institution’s success with respect to student achievement. Moreover, accreditors should be required to explain persistently low student outcomes data among the institutions they accredit.
Accreditors should be required to explain persistently low student outcomes data among the institutions they accredit.
The Department of Education should demystify the accreditation process.
Increasing transparency goes beyond just making data accessible to students: it also means making it easier for the public to understand and participate in the accreditation process. Public participation is important because students’ experiences at institutions, as well as advocates’ and researchers’ findings about an institution, can help inform ED’s decisions about whether an accreditor is worthy of continued recognition.
Under the current system, there are many unnecessary barriers to public participation in the accreditor recognition process. For example, while student complaints about an accreditor are relevant to assessing an accreditors’ performance, students looking to submit complaints to their institution’s accreditor often encounter obstacles such as opaque complaint requirements, including a requirement that complaints specify the exact accrediting standard under which the complaint falls. Accreditor standards can consist of hundreds of pages of dense technical language, and students fearful of choosing the wrong standard may waiver and take no action at all, even if their concerns are valid.
In addition, most institutional accreditors accept complaints within only a short time after the incident in question occurred. In August 2023, ED issued new guidance on complaints clarifying what constitutes satisfactory compliance with the “timely, fair, and equitable” requirement. This guidance will require accreditors to address some of the barriers to filing complaints and improve public participation in the accreditation process.
However, there is more to be done to improve public participation in the accreditor recognition process. Under current practice, a notice is posted in the Federal Register announcing when ED will hold a NACIQI meeting, which accreditors will be reviewed, and when public comments are due. Members of the public are required to submit comments about an accreditor nearly a year before the agency is actually up for review. This deadline makes it very difficult for students, advocates, and other members of the public to bring timely information and insights about an accreditors’ performance to the attention of NACIQI. To make matters worse, members of the public lack access to some of the relevant materials that are under consideration at the NACIQI meeting. As a result, members of the public are prevented from weighing in on information in the materials that might be relevant to evaluating an accreditors’ performance.
To address these problems, ED could consider allowing public comments to be submitted closer to the date of the NACIQI meeting, or adding a second comment period to allow for newly acquired information to be addressed in public comments. ED could also make changes to the process to make relevant materials available for public review at an earlier stage of the process. All of these reforms could be completed through regulatory action, and none would require congressional action.
The Department of Education must ensure that accreditors hold institutions to meaningful standards for student outcomes.
The public trusts accreditors to be both effective and consistent in their decision-making, but in reality, weak accreditors have permitted many underperforming institutions and programs to slip through the cracks, despite their failure to meet accreditation standards. Some accreditor standards are so flexible that institutions can remain in compliance without showing even a minimal level of student success on outcome measures. Varying measures for institutional performance and success, coupled with the lack of clear definitions for even basic terms like “graduation rate” or “retention rate,” means some low-performing schools are not pushed to improve because they haven’t technically fallen out of compliance with their accreditor’s standards.
Getting accreditors to strengthen their requirements for student outcomes is complicated by the fact that ED is prohibited from requiring accreditors to set benchmarks related to student achievement metrics. Unfortunately, without such requirements, accreditors have provided chance after chance to colleges and universities that consistently underperform.
In addition, under the current system, accreditors are given the flexibility to keep even certain non-compliant institutions in good standing for years after they recognize the compliance issue. Worse still, some accreditors don’t recognize problems as they emerge, nor do they respond adequately to known issues, leading to the persistence of low-value programs and institutions and to devastating financial and emotional consequences for students. Although accreditors are responsible for monitoring institutions and programs, weak regulations have created a system in which low-value programs are harming students.
To address concern about weak standards for student outcomes, accreditors could require institutions to set their own minimum outcome requirements based on their unique student population. This would allow institutions a measure of freedom and gives accreditors much-needed data to evaluate performance and help institutions improve. One of the most important aspects of the accreditation process is the institutional self-study which, in addition to being required for re-accreditation, allows the institution to reflect on its own mission. Data on outcomes can be utilized to understand the student experience, analyze current practices, and determine areas for quality improvement.
The open dialogue and transparency of negotiated rulemaking can lead to better regulation.
Negotiated rulemaking is a process under which an agency, in this case ED, convenes a group of stakeholders to negotiate the terms of a proposed administrative rule. This is done through a series of meetings during which these representatives, referred to as negotiators, work with ED to come to a consensus on a set of proposed regulations. ED last held a negotiated rulemaking on accreditation in 2019. Many of the changes from the 2019 negotiated rulemaking were slowly phased in and were only actualized in the last year. Despite the slow pace of regulatory change, rulemakings are valuable tools for bolstering protections for students, as well as for clarifying current regulations. Regulatory changes achieved via a negotiated rulemaking can positively affect student outcomes and provide an important opportunity for public input on quality, shared governance, and the budgetary standards accreditors are responsible for overseeing.
When ED set its 2023-2024 regulatory agenda, it included accreditation. With so many higher education watchers interested in accreditation reform, it is a worthy addition. ED should focus on strengthening accreditation standards on institutional quality, improving data collection and analysis, increasing transparency and public participation, ensuring that accreditors take appropriate action to penalize non-compliant schools, and strengthening accreditor oversight of out-sourcing to third-party servicers.
Accrediting agencies can protect students from the risks of out-sourcing to for-profit third-party companies.
One way accrediting agencies can help to protect students is by providing more effective oversight over arrangements between institutions and for-profit companies called online program managers (OPMs). OPMs offer institutions services, including marketing and recruiting, to establish and grow online programs, something institutions in all sectors find appealing in the wake of the pandemic. By partnering with OPMs, institutions can bypass the high start-up costs associated with launching a new online program. OPMs are frequently paid through a tuition-sharing arrangement, where the companies’ revenues increase in proportion to the number of students that enroll in a program.
This creates a financial incentive for OPMs to increase enrollment in contracted programs, raising the risk of aggressive or deceptive recruitment tactics. In fact, several institutions that have partnered with OPMs have faced accusations of deceptive and predatory recruiting practices. For example, graduates of the University of Southern California’s Online Master of Social Work program recently sued the school for falsely advertising the program. The lawsuit claims that USC falsely represented the online degree program to be identical to on-campus offerings. The lawsuit also alleges that students of color were unfairly targeted through recruitment and marketing efforts led by an OPM contracted with the institution.
Accreditors should serve as a first line of defense against these types of predatory recruitment practices. Some accrediting agencies, like the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), have recognized the potential risk to students posed by third-party servicers, and recently proposed updated guidance that define expectations for member institutions electing to enter into written contracts with third-party providers like OPMs. ED must ensure that they diligently review contracts between third-party servicers and institutions before they are finalized, and that they enforce fair and transparent student recruitment by all involved.
Reform requires that we lay the groundwork now.
Now is a key time for action on accreditation. Weak accreditors are failing to ensure that institutions offer high-quality programs. Reforms to the system, such as increased requirements on data collection, transparency in the recognition process, and requirements for better oversight of OPMs would go a long way toward addressing these problems. Not only can accreditation be used to address underperformance and protect tax dollars from going to institutions facing fiscal uncertainty, but accreditation could also address key issues in higher education. Limiting federal investment in low-performing programs and institutions is important.
Reforms to accreditation must be guided by the goal of ensuring that students are not left worse off than if they’d never pursued higher education at all. We cannot allow the many competing priorities in ED’s robust regulatory agenda to prevent it from holding an additional round of rulemaking beyond the crucial student loan debt relief table scheduled to begin this fall. ED must proceed with its plans to hold a negotiated rulemaking on accreditation and state authorization.