Upping the Pressure on Accreditors

Education Department plans to push agencies to focus on student outcomes.

October 20, 2015

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is planning new executive action on higher education accreditation in the coming weeks, as part of a push to make accreditors focus more heavily on student outcomes when judging colleges and universities, officials said Monday.

The executive action will be part of a package of proposals aimed at reforming an accreditation system that the administration believes is green-lighting too many poor-performing colleges and universities.

“Accreditors need to do more and need to focus on outcomes,” Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell told reporters Monday. He said the department is still hammering out the details of its plans for accreditation, but he added that “there will be three parts: executive action, potential regulatory reform and legislation we feel is needed.”

The proposals will be announced “this month,” said Matt Lehrich, an Education Department spokesman.

It’s not clear exactly what executive action the department might take with respect to accreditors, or what regulatory changes officials are eyeing.

Although they are not governmental entities, accrediting agencies must meet certain federal criteria in order for the colleges they accredit to be eligible to receive federal student aid. The Education Department is responsible for periodically deciding whether accreditors are meeting those standards.

In a July speech calling for greater focus on student outcomes in higher education, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called accrediting agencies “the watchdogs that don’t bark.” He cited a Wall Street Journal analysis of colleges with graduation rates in the single digits that continued to earn accreditors’ approval.

John B. King, who will become acting secretary of education after Duncan leaves at the end of this year, framed any changes to accreditation as part of the administration’s approach to boosting completion rates and other student outcomes in higher education.

Accreditation should focus on “whether or not schools are actually graduating students” and providing them with the “skills they need for success in the 21st Century economy,” King said, adding that accreditors should also look at “whether or not schools are enrolling significant numbers of at-risk students and helping them to finish.”

Education Department officials also said their attention on accreditation has been motivated, in part, by the collapse earlier this year of the Corinthian Colleges for-profit college chain.

“It’s really indicative that Corinthian was still accredited the day they called us and said that they were going to declare bankruptcy,” Mitchell said.

As the Obama administration calls for accrediting agencies to step up their game in policing low-performing colleges, its officials have also chided accreditors for not being flexible enough to allow innovation in higher education.

The Obama administration’s pilot program for opening up federal student aid to new educational providers like MOOCs and coding boot camps sidesteps traditional accreditation to a large extent. The new programs will be evaluated by new quality-control entities that focus heavily on whether students are learning and getting jobs after completing the program.

The Obama administration has also previously said it wanted to make changes to accreditation, but some of those previous efforts have not panned out. For instance, as part of President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address, officials said they wanted to see accreditors focus more on college costs and the value students receive from college, but that effort did not go anywhere.

But this time around may be different. Beyond the Education Department, there is growing dissatisfaction with accreditation across the political spectrum, and accreditors are facing scrutiny from new angles.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a Democrat, grilled the chief of the accreditor that approved Corinthian’s campuses during a congressional hearing this summer.

And the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has demanded that the accreditor, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, turn over documents and testify, as part of an investigation into possible illegal activity “in connection with accrediting for-profit colleges.”

On the presidential campaign trail, Republican Senator Marco Rubio has called accreditation “a cartel” that is preventing cost-saving innovations in higher education.

Department officials said Monday that they are talking about their forthcoming plans for accreditation with colleges and accreditors as well as members of the federal committee that advises the department on accreditation. That panel, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, earlier this year released a wide range of recommendations on how Congress could change accreditation.

The Education Department recently asked national accreditors for information about how they evaluate the job placement claims made by colleges, according to a person familiar with the department’s request, though it’s unclear if that is related to the types of executive action or regulatory changes the department is considering.

The death knell for Corinthian Colleges was an April finding by the Education Department that the company’s Heald College campuses misrepresented job placement rates in hundreds of cases. The episode highlighted the confusing maze of federal and accreditor rules for how colleges must report such information.

Leah Matthews, executive director of the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, said Monday that although she’s not sure what the Education Department is planning, job placement rates might be an area of interest.

"I have long speculated that accreditors across the spectrum of institutional [education] and the professions would be called upon to do more to establish and verify placement performance of graduates," Matthews said.

Paul Fain contributed reporting to this story.


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