These Aren't the Reforms You're Looking For

Blog Post
Jan. 20, 2016

Last year’s collapse of the Corinthian Colleges made widely known what was already clear to many: the current post-secondary accreditation system is failing. Accreditation agency standards are neither rigorous nor consistent, and the entire process lacks transparency. Accreditors set standards for student achievement, and only institutions that meet these standards and maintain accreditation are eligible for the approximately $150 billion in student aid that is distributed by the federal government each year. But these “standards” are not standardized across agencies or institutions. Many accreditation agencies set the bar exceptionally low, or choose criteria that are difficult to measure, making it possible for even institutions with graduation rates in the single digits to maintain accreditation. And up until now, agencies have not been required to make these standards public, leaving students with no reliable way to analyze the quality of their investments, and policy makers unable to hold institutions accountable for poor performance.

The idea of accreditation reform is nothing new. In 2005, then Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings formed a bipartisan Commission on the Future of Higher Education that published a report, “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of US Higher Education.” The report included a number of proposals to improve the state of US higher education that were split into three categories, accessibility, affordability, and accountability.

The section on accountability focused primarily on collecting more data on student learning outcomes, making this data more accessible, and accreditation reform. Spellings noted that, “no current ranking system of colleges and universities directly measures the most critical point—student performance and learning” and recommended that changes be made to the accreditation process to place a greater emphasis on student outcomes.

College groups and lobbyists pushed back fast and hard against these recommendations, claiming that Spellings was overstepping her bounds and that her recommendations would require an unreasonable “one size fits all” standardized test for students, forcing unfair comparisons between dance majors and biology students. Those opposed to the proposals included Senator Lamar Alexander, who agreed that higher education had problems that needed solving, but that the answer was less, not more regulation from Washington, D.C.  Alexander called for a three tiered approach in which rather than just changing the system, the Department of Education should first let colleges and universities know, “in clear terms that if colleges and universities do not accept more responsibility for assessment and accountability, the federal government will do it for them.”

This was ten years ago, and little has changed to hold colleges accountable for student outcomes. But the federal government has now in a small way stepped in to “do it for them” as Alexander suggested, but due to a bill (authored by Alexander himself) restricting the Secretary of Education from regulating student-learning standards, even this may not be enough.

In November, the Department of Education released a list of five executive actions as well as a number of legislative reform recommendations aimed at increasing transparency and accountability in the accreditation process. The new executive actions would publish student and institutional outcome metrics by accrediting agency, and would require accrediting agencies to publish decision letters when institutions are put on probation, a step that often shortly precedes loss of accreditation. Some of this information is already publicly available, but now all information related to accreditation will be consolidated onto one website. The executive action would also call for coordination within the Department of Education (such as the Federal Student Aid Office and Office of Postsecondary Education), with accrediting agencies and with other departments and states to improve oversight and timely responses to problematic institutions, as well as an increased focus on outcomes.

Despite these improvements, more substantive changes to the system, such as making performance and completion metrics the core of accreditation, are still a long way off. These changes cannot come from the Department of Education, due to a Congressional ban preventing the Department from setting standards for institutions based on student outcomes.  Although information about the accreditation process will now be slightly less opaque, it is likely that making this information more public and accessible will not be meaningful, unless it comes hand in hand with legislative action. Though the deck may seem stacked against Congressional action on this issue, the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act could provide the perfect window of opportunity for Congress to renew their commitment to America’s students by addressing the decade old Spellings’ recommendations."