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WASHINGTON -- Accrediting agencies, on average, have not been more likely to sanction colleges with poor student outcomes than they are higher-performing institutions, according to an analysis by a Congressional watchdog. But the largest of them -- and the ones that accredit most public and nonprofit colleges -- are, the report notes.

A Government Accountability Office report released Monday took particular aim at national accreditors, saying there was no significant difference in how those accrediting agencies responded to colleges with weak and strong student outcomes.

Regional accreditors were, however, more likely to sanction colleges with poor student outcomes than they are colleges with good student outcomes, the GAO found. And all accreditors were, on average, more likely to sanction colleges with weaker financial characteristics than those with stronger financial indicators.

Analysts at the GAO looked at data between October 2009 and March 2014, during which time all accreditors took actions against about 8 percent of colleges for not meeting the agencies' standards and terminated the accreditation of about 1 percent of institutions. Losing accreditation is generally a death sentence for a college since accreditation is required to be eligible for various types of federal funding.

The GAO then built a statistical model that compared a set of student outcome measures -- such as graduation rate, loan default rate, dropout rate, and retention rate -- to how likely an institution was to be punished by an accreditor over issues relating to academic quality. It also made a similar comparison between a set of financial indicators and the likelihood that an institution had been sanctioned by an accreditor for violating a financial standard.

The report is particularly critical of national accreditors, which largely evaluate the quality of for-profit colleges and some non-profit institutions. It also found that, over all, all accreditors of for-profit colleges were more likely to impose a sanction on colleges with student outcomes in the top 25 percent than they were to terminate or suspend colleges in the bottom quartile. 

But even though the data included in the report are mixed, it offers an overwhelmingly negative assessment of the quality and rigor of federal oversight of higher education.

The GAO said its report “raises questions about whether the standards accreditors use ensure that schools provide a quality education, and whether [the U.S. Department of] Education is effectively determining if these standards ensure educational quality.”

Representative George Miller, the retiring California Democrat who is a critic of for-profit colleges and requested the GAO study, echoed that concern in a statement Monday.

“Congress has tasked accreditors with evaluating the academic strength of colleges and universities, and the American people expect accreditors to hold colleges accountable for student success,” Miller said. “This report raises serious questions about whether we are watching the watchdogs closely enough.”

Supporters of accreditation, however, took issue with the GAO's findings.

Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which represents colleges and universities on accreditation issues, said the report focused too narrowly on the sanctions -- or lack of sanctions -- that accreditors impose on colleges.

"It's a mischaracterization of the accreditation process to judge it solely by the sanctions, as it is a mischaracterization to judge accreditation by the number of intuitions that are terminated," she said. "It's a process that is formative in nature, and its focus is on making things better. The goal of accreditation is not to deny accreditation."

Eaton added that the report reflects a growing push in Washington to "federalize" accreditation and turn accreditors into "compliance cops.” Such an approach detracts, she said, from their goal of improving the quality of higher education through institutional self-reflection and peer review.

Education Department Oversight

The report also faults the U.S. Department of Education for not adequately using data about accreditors’ sanctions against colleges in deciding whether accrediting agencies should continue to be recognized by the federal government.

It also says that the Education Department doesn’t consistently use sanction information to inform how it polices colleges and universities that receive federal funds. For instance, when the department receives notice from an accreditor that it has put a college on probation for violating a financial standard, the department does not necessarily take a closer look at the college’s finances.

The department said in comments to the report that it agreed with those findings. 

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