The current system of university accreditation has received scrutiny after high-profile cases have left politicians and students wondering how poorly-performing schools were approved in the first place.
While accreditor approval is necessary for a college's students to receive federal loans and grants, they have come under fire for not enforcing a uniform set of standards. As student loan debt continues to skyrocket, the Obama administration is continuing to address the problem that too many of these loans are going to unreliable and inadequate institutions from which only a few students graduate.
Ted Mitchell, Undersecretary at the Department of Education, stated the problem succinctly:
We are concerned that accreditors are not doing enough to protect students.
In 2014, $16 billion in aid went to students at colleges where fewer than one third of the students graduated within six years. Out of the 1,500 accredited colleges, 350 have a lower graduation rate or higher student loan default rate than the average of the schools that accreditors have banished. Kentucky State, for example, has a graduation rate of just 18% compared to a national average of about 59%.
Belle Wheelan, President of the Southern Association, which reviews colleges in 11 states, said that graduation rate is an unhelpful metric for rating the performance of accreditors, since their goals are more focused on improving colleges than on weeding out those that are performing poorly.
Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, said:
You're not there to remove an institution. You're there to enhance the operation.
According to Andrea Fuller and Douglas Belkin of the Wall Street Journal, President Obama proposed in 2013 a rating system of factors like graduation rate, student debt, and income after graduation that would be tied to their access to loans and grants. This would essentially bypass accreditors and is opposed by many from both parties.
Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University and Director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, said:
It's a national scandal that we're pouring huge sums of money into schools with very, very low graduation rates.
One high profile case of a college that may have unfairly passed the accreditation system was that of Corinthian Colleges.
Corinthian Colleges Inc., a for-profit college, was accredited until they filed for bankruptcy in May of this year. According to Tom Anderson of CNBC, 200 of their students refused to pay back their loans because they felt that they had been treated unfairly, were charged too much, and had been given false information about post-graduation job placement rates.
Blanket debt relief was offered to the 15,000 students of the for-profit schools of Corinthian Colleges Inc. Combined, their loans totaled $200 million, writes David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal.
The Education Department plans on helping others who feel that they have been victims of fraud.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said:
If you've been defrauded by a school, we'll make sure that you get every penny of the debt relief you are entitled to through a streamlined process.
We're going to continue to try to do the right thing for students and taxpayers. But hopefully Congress will wake up here and get members on both sides of the aisle, and figure out that they need to strengthen our hand in dealing with these guys.
At least 28 colleges, most of which are for-profit, are being investigated. Even if found to be guilty, not every student would seek or win debt relief. The students at those 28 colleges have borrowed more than $57 billion since 2009.