If “Outcomes Are Key” in Higher Education, Why Do Accreditors Oppose Minimum Standards for Colleges?

As advocates for continuous improvement in higher education, accrediting agencies should be welcoming, not opposing, the ability to set minimum standards for the colleges they oversee.
Blog Post
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March 5, 2024

If you are a new student considering where to go to college, a four-year school with a six-year graduation rate of 14 percent would probably give you some pause. Yet oddly, graduation rates in the low teens, and sometimes even worse, do not seem to give major institutional accreditors cause for concern.

The Department of Education (ED) is trying to strengthen accreditation rules but is facing heavy pushback from colleges and accreditors. The changes attracting some of the strongest opposition state that the “agency's accreditation standards must set forth clear minimum expectations of performance that the agency must verify and enforce for the institutions or programs it accredits.” These minimum expectations would apply to a variety of standards that accreditors–not ED– would set, and colleges would need to meet.

For students, the most important metrics are achievement standards like graduation and retention rates. Poor achievement rates harm students who enroll with the promise of attaining a degree or credential, only for their school to fail to provide the resources and education needed to get them to graduation day. Accreditors, as the arbiters of quality in higher education, should be doing more to push colleges to improve poor graduation rates.

The proposed changes are currently going through the negotiated rulemaking process. ED is legally required to undertake negotiated rulemaking when it seeks to change regulations under Title IV of the Higher Education Act, which authorizes federal financial aid programs.

The opposition to the proposed changes seems contrary to the comment made by one negotiator representing accreditors, who said that “outcomes are key.” Accreditors, ED, and states form a program integrity triad, acting as gatekeepers for federal student aid. Accreditors are charged with ensuring the academic quality of the colleges they endorse.

One way accrediting agencies say they currently ensure quality is through “continuous improvement,” an approach that accreditors claim is designed to help colleges and universities constantly reassess, change, and improve the education they provide to students. If colleges fail to improve on things like low graduation rates, accreditors are supposed to sanction them—with consequences that can include losing the ability to participate in federal financial aid programs. Accreditors are also meant to help college's improve when they are not providing high quality education. In theory, this prevents colleges that are failing students from doing so indefinitely. However, accreditors are failing to do this.

Minimum Standards Can Help Ensure Continuous Improvement

Given their interest in continuous improvement, it is odd that accreditors are not welcoming setting minimum standards that could act as a warning sign that an institution is struggling. These kinds of warnings could help accreditors identify when it is time to step in to help schools improve, especially when it is clear they are not getting enough students to complete their degrees.

The failure of accreditors to enforce minimum achievement standards is pervasive. Third Way recently showed that thirty-seven percent of accredited colleges have graduation rates below fifty percent. Of those colleges, 129 graduated less than a quarter of their students.

Take the University of Phoenix, accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC). Based on the data available via the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), Phoenix had a six-year graduation rate of 17 percent in 2021. That rate dropped to 12 percent in 2022 and then rose slightly to 14 percent in 2023. HLC started accrediting Phoenix in 1976. In all this time, HLC has not managed to bring about the continuous improvement to Phoenix’s graduation rates that is part of the accreditor’s guiding values.

This is just one example of many. If these colleges were being held to true continuous improvement standards, then their graduation rates would not be languishing in the teens and single figures.

In some cases, there are important contextual reasons for those low graduation rates, which is why the current proposals from ED would allow accreditors to set minimum standards by institutional sector and to set targets for improvement on a school-by-school basis.

Some negotiators have suggested that minimum bright line standards are unnecessary because of the holistic review process accreditors to assess the quality of institutions. But when holistic review gives a clean bill of health to colleges with abysmal student achievement records, clearly something needs to be changed.

Why Do We Hold Students to Higher Standards than Colleges?

It’s worth noting that when it comes to maintaining eligibility for financial aid, we hold students failing to meet their academic standards to a far more rigorous standard than we hold colleges to. Students whose GPA drops below a school's allowed minimum—usually a 2.0—become ineligible to continue receiving federal aid unless they have an appeal approved by their school’s financial aid office. There are often extenuating circumstances that financial aid administrators will take into account when deciding whether to approve these appeals, but one requirement is nonnegotiable: students have to create an academic plan outlining how they are going to bring their grades up, and they are monitored to ensure they follow through on that. Failure to show improvement each semester until their GPA is back above 2.0 usually means no more financial aid. 

It seems only fair that we hold institutions to the same accountability standards that we hold students to when it comes to using taxpayer money to pay for college. If accreditors truly subscribe to the principle of continuous improvement, then they should welcome minimum expectations for the colleges they oversee. And when colleges fail to meet them, they should not hesitate to require them to improve or take away their access to federal financial aid programs. 

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