Why Accreditation Reform Can Unlock Stronger Student Outcomes

A college degree or certificate is ever more necessary in today’s economy; an estimated 65 percent of available jobs by 2020 will require some education or training beyond high school. The promise to students is that postsecondary education will set them up to obtain a job within their field and embark on a successful career path.

Yet, for far too many students, the dream of college success never becomes reality.  Looking at national trends, college attendance may be at an all-time high, but too many students are still not completing their degree, and student loan default rates are worryingly high. At the same time, the federal government invests more than $130 billion in federal student aid.

Accreditation is the key to understanding the complex relationship between federal investment in student aid and the value of higher education. That’s why Higher Learning Advocates has released our latest 101: Accreditation, which provides a primer on the current accreditation system, the process that accreditors need to follow in order to be recognized and other important policy questions.

Why is higher accreditation so important? While it may be the furthest thing from the minds of the general public and even some policymakers, accreditation plays a pivotal role as the gatekeeping mechanism to the $130 billion in federal student aid. As a pivotal leg of the Higher Education “Triad,” an accreditor’s stamp of approval is necessary to enable a college or university to participate in federal student aid programs.

Currently, federal policy asks accrediting bodies to weigh compliance and bureaucratic processes too heavily rather than ensuring that institutions are producing the quality and types of strong outcomes today’s students need.

But ultimately, outcomes are what count for students and taxpayers. If an institution fails to provide students with the necessary skills and knowledge, and preparation to succeed in the workforce, then there will be negative economic consequences. A domino effect can ensue where the student cannot find a job, cannot repay federal student loans, default on those loans and even impact their credit score and ability to find employment and buy a home in the long run. Outcomes matter.

Federal policy should support an accreditation system that ensures institutions and providers deliver strong outcomes for all of today’s students—a system where postsecondary providers provide an education that is in demand by employers, programs are flexible and support student success.  

An improved accreditation system can ensure the success of both institutions and students. The first step is raising awareness about the challenge and opportunities we have to improve. Get started with our 101.

Want to learn even more about accreditation? See our other 101s on NACIQI and the Higher Education Triad. and our glossary of accreditation terms.