Whether it’s candy bars, ballet barres or college education, the same two variables matter: cost and quality.

The Biden administration has been doing extraordinary work on the cost side of higher education—seeking (if the Supreme Court will permit it) general loan forgiveness and reforming income-driven repayment, Public Service Loan Forgiveness and borrower defense to repayment.

But the accrediting agencies that are charged by the Higher Education Act with ensuring the quality of our colleges have failed to do their job for the 70 years since they were first assigned it. For all this time, millions of students and billions in taxpayer grants and subsidized loans have been paying for inferior educations with poor outcomes at a large number of colleges.

The HEA gives the Department of Education the power to make these agencies do a better job or to dismiss them from the quality-assurance business.

The department needs to use this power now. Four factors make accreditor nonfeasance more dangerous than ever:

  • The public has historically low confidence in the value of a college education.
  • At the same time, the value of a college education has never been higher.
  • Changing demographics (fewer traditional college-aged students) and the availability of technology (more and better distance education lessening demand for traditional in-person learning) are creating a situation where, unless held to standards, tuition-dependent colleges will be driven to cut corners and to obscure the quality of what they are offering.
  • Finally, the fact that income-driven repayment plans transfer the cost of a poor choice of college or academic program from the student to the government will inevitably make students less wary and less focused on the return on investment.

In short, accreditors must hold institutions to tough standards to save students’ careers and taxpayers’ dollars. The context is this: before students can use federal financial aid to pay for college, a college must be accredited by one of the recognized accrediting agencies; there are “regional” and “national” accrediting agencies, and most public and private nonprofit colleges are accredited by the regionals. (There are also programmatic accreditors that evaluate specific programs, for example in allied health or law, but they’re largely beyond the scope of this piece.)

Just how badly do accreditors perform?

Accreditors very rarely terminate accreditation for any colleges even those with terrible retention and graduation rates. The seven regional accrediting agencies collectively accredit more than 2,500 institutions. Since 2010, they have collectively terminated accreditation for 18 colleges. Some of these were simply formal terminations of institutions that had already closed.

Accrediting Agency Actions to Terminate or Withdraw Institutional Accreditation, Since 2010
Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Western Association of Schools and Colleges none
Higher Learning Commission 3 (American Indian College, Ellis University, Mountain State University)
Middle States Commission on Higher Education 3 (Baltimore International College, Dowling College, Sojourner-Douglass College)
New England Commission of Higher Education 4 (Atlantic Union College, Burlington College, College of St. Joseph, Southern Vermont College)
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities none
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges 7 (Lambuth University, Lon Morris College, Mid-Continent University, Paine College, Paul Quinn College, Saint Paul’s College, Virginia Intermont College. It also terminated recognition for Bennett College, which obtained a court order reinstating its accreditation before withdrawing from SACSCOC membership.)
Western Association of Schools and Colleges 1 (Argosy University)

The lack of enforced objective measures is the primary factor driving accreditors’ negligible performance. The regional accreditors don’t use objective measures of student retention or graduation rates or job and graduate school placement rates or passage rates for licensing exams to determine if colleges are doing a good job. At most, they say what kinds of student outcomes might be included in the reviews and allow colleges to define their own levels of acceptable achievement relative to their missions. None of them cite actual minimum acceptable rates of achievement.

Some of the national accreditors, such as the Accrediting Commission for Career Schools and Colleges, do use objective standards. ACCSC establishes benchmarks for graduation rates, employment rates and passage rates on licensure exams that it judges institutions against—a plus in this battle for quality. But, too often, they rely on self-reporting by colleges or are quick to grant extensions for failure to meet standards.

And only rarely are the accreditors themselves held accountable by the Department of Education. After a multiyear battle, one of the national accreditors finally lost its federal recognition in August for failure to establish and enforce appropriate standards.

No wonder that secretaries of education under presidents of both parties have beseeched accreditors to seriously enforce standards and focus on student learning: Richard Riley (Clinton), Margaret Spellings (George W. Bush), Arne Duncan (Obama) and John King (also Obama).

Why are accreditors so lax? Accrediting agencies long predate the enforcement role they were given under the HEA and in the 1952 GI Bill before that. They have traditionally seen themselves as counselors, a role they still emphasize and which can be at cross-purposes with enforcement.

Also, like the bond rating agencies, whose overblown ratings helped precipitate the Great Recession in 2008, agencies are paid to provide their accreditation services by the very institutions that they evaluate.

Finally, the rare instances in which accreditors terminate colleges often lead to long, time-consuming and expensive litigation.

Given the inaction and the incentives for agencies to continue to do little, Congress or the department has to insist that accrediting agencies meet federal standards when evaluating colleges.

There are clear statutory bases for the department to require that agencies develop and enforce standards. The HEA grants the Education Department more power over accreditors than it has been willing to use, and that must change.

Specifically, the Education Department has the affirmative responsibility to require accreditors to adopt standards that measure student achievement. And while accreditors must be sensitive to the institution’s mission, many colleges have nearly identical missions.

The statute does not allow the department to prescribe specific standards—it states that “nothing in this section shall be construed to permit the Secretary [of Education] to establish any criteria that specifies, defines, or prescribes the standards that accrediting agencies or associations shall use to assess any institution’s success with respect to student achievement”—but it requires the department to mandate accrediting agencies adopt “appropriate … measures of student achievement.”

The department should direct each agency to adopt a presumption of objective standards which must be met, explain how it will enforce them and then explain to the department if it is not holding a particular institution to them. That will address the issue of institutions that do not bring students a return on their investment.

As it stands, far too many institutions are saddling students with debt without bringing them a return on their investment. Learning, graduation and good job placement matter. It’s time that those charged with ensuring quality think so, too.

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