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Ask the Experts: Accreditation Reform

Quality & Outcomes
Ask the Experts: Accreditation Reform

Accrediting agencies are responsible for doling out the “stamp of approval” that institutions of higher education need to be eligible to accept federal student aid. Though the federal government invests over $130 billion annually in federal financial aid for today’s students, federal policy does not have a clear focus on ensuring that students use those dollars at high-quality colleges and universities.

Current policy requires accreditors to focus too much on compliance and not enough on ensuring that the institutions they evaluate and accredit produce strong student outcomes. Accreditation is the key to ensuring that taxpayers receive a strong return on investment from higher education and students receive a high-quality experience and strong outcomes in exchange for the financial sacrifices they make to attend college.

Higher education policy experts and advocates from a wide variety of organizations and on both sides of the political aisle agree: the current accreditation system needs a stronger focus on student outcomes when determining which institutions receive and keep accredited status.

Here’s what the experts say:

On Outcomes:

Beth Akers, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, stated “accreditation has historically been focused on the inputs a college uses, like curriculum and faculty credentials, rather than student outcomes. And unfortunately, it’s not clear that the two are linked.”

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities comments to NACIQI argue that “accreditors can and should rely on institutionally-determined and implemented outcomes measures to evaluate quality assurance and improvement at the institution. We must focus substantially greater attention on outcomes… and pay greater attention to learning outcomes for our students.”

Kevin Carey, Vice President for Education Policy and Knowledge at New America, gave an opening statement during a House Committee on Education and the Workforce subcommittee hearing and said: “The current accreditation system evaluates organizations, not learning. Programs and courses approved under the new [proposed] system would have to disclose: what learning outcomes students would need to achieve, what process would be used to evaluate those outcomes, and actual student learning results on an ongoing basis.”

Dr. Jose Luis Cruz, President of Lehman College, during his opening statement at a Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing said: “As part of this accountability conversation, we should be continuing these guardrails in addition to taking further steps, such as requiring accreditation agencies to emphasize student outcomes and measures of academic quality and financial stability in their evaluations and accreditation decisions.”

Antoinette Flores, Associate Director for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress, states, “The current lack of true accountability allows accreditors to avoid addressing the worst outcomes, and the system thus fails to help institutions improve their service to students in a tangible way.”

Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC), Chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and Workforce, made a statement at a hearing on Strengthening Accreditation to Better Protect Students and Taxpayers: “Accreditors must also embrace a commitment to high-quality and improved outcomes. Students need an honest and accurate assessment when it comes to the quality of education a school provides. An accreditation agency’s stamp of approval means something to those students, or at least it should mean something.”

Andrew Kelly, formerly Director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute, writes “Accreditation is supposed to ensure institutional quality: To be eligible for federal grants and loans, institutions must be accredited. Accreditation agencies have had this gatekeeper role in federal policy since the Korean War GI Bill. But accreditation agencies face a clear conflict of interest in evaluating existing institutions. They are sustained by dues from the schools they regulate, and faculty from peer institutions conduct accreditation reviews. And because federal aid is the lifeblood of many institutions, accreditors are reluctant to revoke a school’s accreditation. Poorly-performing schools are allowed to muddle along, propped up by continuing access to federal funds.”

Dr. Michael McComis, Executive Director of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, during his opening statement at a House Education and Workforce subcommittee hearing stated: “All accreditors, regional or national, and regardless of the types of institutions accredited, should enforce an accountability-based model that combines rigorous input standards with performance outcomes in categories such as student learning, student assessment, and student achievement.” “Accreditors must do better at defining student achievement outcomes with greater transparency to show how these measures are applied so that the public and policy makers can rely on the results of their evaluation processes.”

Senator Patty Murray, Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions gave an opening statement at a hearing that states: “Accreditors, states, and the federal government have a responsibility to make sure that gatekeeping role is working effectively. And it is also important for both students and taxpayers who expect to get a good return on their investment in higher education. Recently, we have seen far too many examples of students and taxpayers facing the consequences of poor oversight. There is, without a doubt, room for improvement in the current system to better assess an institution’s quality and student outcomes.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) states “accrediting agencies are supposed to make sure students get a good education and ensure colleges aren’t cheating students while sucking down taxpayer money. But right now the accreditation system is broken.”

On a Differentiated Accreditation Approach:

A policy brief by Education Counsel stated that “The federal recognition process for accreditors should support accreditors in the transition to and use of outcomes-focused, differentiated systems.”

Martin Kurzweil, Director of Education Transformation at Ithaka S+R, stated “It’s having a tighter focus on educational processes and outcomes. It’s having more frequent engagement between the accreditor and the provider. It’s having differentiated results, as opposed to ‘approved/not approved.’ It’s having a range of consequences for shortcomings, as opposed to the death sentence or nothing.”

Association of Public Land-grant Universities President Peter McPherson argues for differentiated accreditation because “institutions with weaker outcomes often need a more careful review than schools with stronger track records that end up almost always being reaccredited to no one’s surprise.” This approach “would ensure all schools are subject to a review, but that schools with a strong track record do not need to go through the same extensive and expensive review process as those with weak programs and poor student outcomes.”

On Transparency:

While Ted Mitchell was Under Secretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education, he stated : “We’re using the tools of transparency to provide everyone with more information and, quite frankly, to say to accreditors we’re paying attention to this with renewed vigor and that it’s going to matter” whether they focus more intently on student outcomes.

Former President of the WASC Senior College and University Commission Dr. Mary Ellen Petrisko, in her opening statement at a House Education and Workforce hearing, states: “Whatever steps are taken to provide greater transparency should ensure that students can access accurate and relevant information on our institutions … Better information can help students make better choices and promote enhanced accountability across higher education.”