Aug. 8, 2023
This week, The Department of Education issued guidance to accreditation agencies that should improve accreditors’ complaints processes. The guidance details the Department’s expectations of what should be included in an effective complaint policy and process. Implementing this guidance will help accreditors identify potential problem institutions earlier so they can take corrective action.
Earlier this year, New America released a brief highlighting the many problems with how accreditors handle complaints about the colleges they oversee. In that brief, we argued that accreditors are likely missing many issues at the colleges they oversee because of how complex their complaint processes are. Complaints help provide insight into colleges' performance, so making it easier for students, staff, and faculty to submit complaints about their institutions could help accreditors do their job more effectively. By making it hard to submit complaints, accreditors are failing to ensure that students can easily raise concerns when they do not receive the quality of education an institution promised.
Accreditors, along with the Education Department and states, are part of the program integrity triad that act as gatekeepers for federal student aid money. These agencies accredit entire institutions, providing the stamp of approval that colleges need to access Title IV financial aid dollars. Because most institutions need access to federal financial aid for their students, accreditation is essential for keeping colleges solvent.
Accreditors are charged with ensuring the academic quality of the colleges they endorse. Complaints from students, staff, and faculty provide insight into a college’s performance, so making it easier to submit complaints can help accreditors do their job more effectively. For example, accreditors can require institutions to employ appropriately trained and qualified faculty members, assess whether students receive sufficient academic support, and ensure that students are completing their programs at a reasonable rate. If it is hard for students to submit a complaint about poor academic support, it is harder for accreditors to hold schools accountable for their standards, leaving students in harm's way.
The new guidance includes many of the recommendations put forward in our brief:
- Requiring that accreditors provide multiple and easy methods for students and college employees to submit complaints.
- Allowing the anonymous submission of complaints so that complainants can choose to keep their personal information private.
- Requiring that accreditors provide feedback to students and college employees on what needs to be corrected if they submit a complaint incorrectly so that incomplete complaints can be processed rather than discarded.
- Providing clear and easy-to-understand timelines explaining how long complaints take to process and when the complainant should expect to hear back from the accrediting agency.
- Providing easy-to-understand guidance helping complainants identify whether their complaint relates to the agency’s standards, rather than requiring non-experts to determine the exact accreditation standard a school may have violated.
In addition to guiding accreditors on best practices, changes need to be codified in regulation to ensure future compliance. The Education Department has listed accreditation as a topic up for regulation during negotiated rulemaking this year, and improvements to accreditors' complaints processes should be part of that regulatory agenda. Enshrining higher standards in the regulations will ensure that accreditors maintain improvements to their processes over the long term.
Accrediting agencies' complex complaints processes are likely suppressing the number of complaints they receive and missing problems at institutions that warrant investigation. We are grateful to the Department for this robust guidance and hope it will help agencies improve how they handle and investigate issues at the institutions they oversee.