The US Department of Education is asking accreditation agencies to improve their review of colleges and universities while legislators are nudging the DoE to strengthen its review of accreditors.
In a letter, Education Undersecretary Ted Mitchell encouraged all accrediting agencies recognized by the Department to use "the full extent of the law" to oversee student achievement at institutions that are struggling.
Mitchell detailed guidelines on examining schools, particularly by using quantitative measures to judge the schools' quality, including retention, student loan default, and graduation rates. He also assured the agencies of the flexibility they may use to raise the pressure on at-risk schools.
"Accreditors need to utilize all the tools at their disposal to monitor and take action on institutions that put students and taxpayers at risk," Mitchell said, in an email. "Accreditors have not only the flexibility but the responsibility to focus their resources on the institutions that present the greatest risk."
The Washington Post's Danielle Douglas-Gabriel reports that private sector accreditors are relied upon to give their approval to higher education schools' programs and be the gatekeepers of federal financial aid. The job of accreditors is to investigate completely the schools' facilities, retention rates, and the quality of their teachers. In this way, taxpayer money is ensured to be going to quality colleges.
But currently there is no equality in the way accreditors decide who is accepted and who leaves the federal student aid programs, making the system they use to make assessments subjective.
US Senate Democrats started the ball rolling when they called on the Education Department to strengthen the process and used the Corinthian College debacle as an example of accreditors' failure to uncover the bad apples before it was too late.
Jon Reid, writing for the Washington, D.C. Morning Consult, says that 24 Senators wrote in a letter to Education Secretary John King on April 22 that the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) never took adequate steps to validate Corinthian's inaccurate job placement statistics and falsified data.
The Senators added that a 2014 report by the Government Accountability Office found that "only 1 percent of institutions lost their accredited status and a mere 8 percent were sanctioned."
They pointed out that accreditors failed to establish clear criteria that would ensure that adequate numbers of students were continuing academic studies in their major, completing their courses, and were able to obtain new or better jobs when they graduated.
The letter said that under current law and regulation an agency can "focus its resources on institutions with higher risk due to poor performance, size, volume of student aid, or other factors."
The Department will be requesting validation of outcomes when it considers whether or not an agency is living up to its responsibility to the federal government. It is possible that the Department would ask an agency to describe why it employs different standards than another accreditation office is using.
The DoE might also question why students' achievements at one college are below those at colleges that are supervised by other accreditors, according to Eric Kelderman for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, has become a candid proponent of reform in the area of accreditation. She wants to see accreditors become more open about the work they do and wants to push for more accountability by institutions for their students' performance.
She is concerned that such issues as peer review, preservation of academic freedom, and highlighting schools' missions and autonomy will be left by the wayside "while we appear to be in a major restructuring of the relationship between the federal government and accreditation."