The Department of Education has unveiled a number of executive actions it will take in an effort to boost accountability within the higher education accreditation system, recently referred to by Education Secretary Arne Duncan as "watchdogs that don't bite."
In order for students to receive federal financial aid, which amounts to an investment of $150 billion each year into the education system, the schools students enroll in must be accredited. Accreditors are responsible for a baseline level of quality and performance to be met at each institution they oversee.
Recently, accreditors have been under more pressure to be held accountable for the schools they endorse. In order to do this, the department suggests that the standards every accreditor must use in the evaluation of student outcomes are made public. By law, accreditors must determine a set of standards that the colleges and universities they endorse must follow to remain under accreditation. Currently, the department does not have the ability to establish any criteria for that process. Duncan suggests that this allows accreditors to set low standards that could be difficult to measure or verify.
The department also plans to require accreditors to submit any letters received from colleges or universities that are put on probation. Right now, the department only needs to be notified that a letter has been received, but accreditors do not need to provide a reason for or details of the probation.
Data about each college will need to be highlighted, including student graduation rates, debt levels, and earnings post-graduation.
"Our administration firmly believes that institutes must be held accountable when they take taxpayer dollars," Duncan said.
The recent developments come as an answer from the Obama administration to deal with schools, such as those in the for-profit industry, that generate graduates who leave with high levels of student loan debt and a degree that does not offer very much in the way of job prospects, writes Danielle Douglas-Gabriel for The Washington Post.
The department also released a list of recommendations to be given to Congress to include in the debate over reauthorizing the Higher Education Act first signed into law 50 years ago by President Lyndon Johnson.
"I'm calling on Congress to help keep institutions accountable," Duncan said. "Congress has asked very little in terms of accountability and accreditors have provided very little."
The recommendations include giving authority to the Education Department to set and enforce expectations pertaining to student achievement standards. According to Undersecretary Ted Mitchell, doing so would offer incentive to accreditors to take a closer look at the standards set at the schools they oversee, paying special attention to lower-performing schools.
The department would also like to see Congress set clear and consistent key accreditation terms, definitions and reporting requirements to replace the current language, which often makes use of a variety of terms to describe the same thing, writes Lauren Camera for US News.
"To be clear, we will not be able to make accreditation do the work it needs to do for student and taxpayer without Congress stepping up," Mitchell said.