By Judith S. Eaton Last month was tough for accreditation. Congress, the U.S. Department of Education and the press all sent the same message. Accreditation must be more directly engaged in protecting students and serving the public interest. As the country’s primary means of assuring and improving academic quality, accreditation is called upon to tackle two of the biggest concerns facing higher education: doing more to assure graduation and other forms of student success and doing more to help students avoid harmful debt and default. The sense of urgency is great. This theme is dominant. The refrain is frequent.
To be sure, accreditation already protects students. Accreditors carry out important functions here — assuring the quality of curriculum, the appropriateness of faculty and staffing and robust academic standards — all of which mean that colleges and universities must keep their promises to students and provide a quality education. Nonetheless, today accreditors face the new urgency and an imperative to expand the protection that accreditation can provide.
Ever since the 2005-2006 Commission on the Future of Higher Education, Congress and USDE have been trying to reshape accrediting organizations and their role as “gatekeepers.” With accredited status required to be eligible for federal funds, accreditors play a powerful role, standing between more than 7,000 colleges and universities and $170 billion in Title IV and other federal funds annually. Lawmakers and USDE officials want more – and the more is protection of students in this era of concern and urgency about student success and about student debt and default. It is the urgency and the dominance of this theme that are game changers for accreditation.
It all came to a head in mid-June. First came the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on accreditation on June 17, one of several over the past year or so. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chair of the committee, asked “Is accreditation working?” It was not the first time for this question from the Senator. And, he continues to ask — not a good signal to accreditors. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., ranking member of the committee, pointed out that there were too many instances of poor oversight and called for more rigorous evaluation from accreditation. Sen.Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was blunt: She asked how can schools that federal and state governments were closing and suing, such as Corinthian Colleges, Inc., keep their accreditation? Why, a number of other senators asked, do institutions remain accredited when their graduation or other student completion rates are weak, even as compared to other similar institutions? When default rates are high?
Then came The Wall Street Journal — on the same day, echoing the senators. In its unprecedented and extensive article on accreditation, the headline said it all: The Watchdogs of College Education Rarely Bite: Accreditors Keep Hundreds of Schools with Low Graduation Rates or High Loan Default Alive. The Journal, too, was pushing accreditors about how accredited status could be awarded to schools that have evidence of little student success and a lot of student debt. The Journal, too, was questioning the effectiveness of accreditation.
The following week, the National Advisory Committee that advises the Secretary of Education on the effectiveness of accrediting organizations to be gatekeepers met. The committee’s conversation about accreditation was prolonged and sometimes heated, further underscoring concerns about accreditation when it comes to student success. Echoing the earlier HELP hearing, one advisory committee member asked, for example, about how a nursing program that had recently lost its state authorization to operate continued to be accredited.
Finally, questioning accreditation has even penetrated the early 2016 presidential campaign, with two of the Republican 2016 presidential candidates already targeting accreditation and stating dissatisfaction with how it works. When, if ever, has accreditation been a presidential campaign issue? And, if a proposal offered by one Democrat candidate about tuition-free higher education is realized (a likely $70 billion annual additional investment in higher education) accreditation as a reliable indicator of institutional performance — whether students succeed — will be pressured even more.
Game change for accreditation? The urgency is real. The message to accreditation of “do more” is likely to continue.
Judith Eaton is President of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.