The Obama administration is trying to ratchet up already growing pressure on accrediting agencies to focus more intently on whether colleges are graduating students with the skills they need to get jobs and repay their loans.
Officials on Friday unveiled a package of “executive actions” aimed at cracking down on college accreditors, which the administration argues are not holding colleges to high enough standards when it comes to evaluating the success of students.
The actions are far less aggressive than many accreditation experts had anticipated, and the administration said that it was significantly constrained by a Congressional ban on the Education Department setting specific accreditation standards involving student outcomes. But the relatively limited actions were accompanied by a much more aggressive set of proposals on the administration's legislative wish list.
Without the power to demand or mandate that accreditors focus on student outcomes as the administration wants them to, officials focused in the limited steps it could take without legislative approval and on pushing new transparency measures they hope will pressure the accreditors to change their practices.
Officials published data that show how some accreditors are giving a stamp of approval to many colleges that perform poorly on objective measures of student success, such as graduation rate, loan repayment rate and postcollege earnings information. They also compiled the standards about student learning that accreditors post on their websites in an effort, administration officials said, to call attention to the varying standards, which they believe are too low in many cases.
Nearly all of the information has already been publicly available, but bringing it together on a new website is designed to publicly prod the accreditors. The administration called for a significant boost in the rigor of accreditation, nothing that some accreditors had "set low or difficult-to-measure thresholds" for what colleges need to meet to be accredited and that some set "thresholds established by the institutions they accredit."
“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, Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell told reporters. “That message ought to be clear.”
Officials said they would also start requiring accreditors to provide regulators with more detailed information about the problems they uncover at specific institutions that are placed on probation. Accreditors are already required to make public their decision to place a college on probation, but they will now have to provide their reasoning to the Education Department, which said it would publicly post such documents “to the extent releasable.”
Limits of Existing Authority
The new actions come as college accreditors once again find themselves under fire from nearly every angle in Washington, across the ideological spectrum.
But while congressional lawmakers -- and even presidential candidates -- eye significant overhauls of accreditation, the Obama administration is grappling with what it can unilaterally do in its waning months in power.
The Obama administration has previously used its bully pulpit to take on accrediting agencies over the past seven years. President Obama notably included accreditation reforms in his 2013 State of the Union proposals. And more recently Education Secretary Arne Duncan slammed accreditors as the “watchdogs that don’t bark” -- a criticism he repeated Thursday during a call with reporters.
But the administration’s efforts to take unilateral action on accreditation faced legal obstacles, current and former department officials said.
Most significant is a 2008 provision that was inserted into the Higher Education Act, prohibiting the Education Department from defining or setting standards of student achievement that accreditors must apply to the colleges they oversee.
The legislation was passed during the Bush administration after then Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’s ill-fated attempt to get accreditors to hold colleges more accountable for student learning outcomes. The Bush administration sought to require accreditors to tell the Education Department what standards it was holding colleges to when it came to student learning outcomes.
Accreditors and institutions balked at the proposal, and Congress swooped in to stop the plan, which Republicans and some Democrats saw as an inappropriate federal intrusion into accreditation of colleges and universities. The imposition of the ban was led by Senator Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who now heads the Senate's education committee.
The top suggestion on the administration's list of recommendations for Congress asked lawmakers to reverse the provision in federal law that bars the Education Department from imposing standards on the accreditors.
That would open the door to the government being much more directive of the agencies, and the Education Department plan urges Congress to differentiate among accreditors based on how successfully (or not) the institutions they accredit educate students. In the department's vision, the government could loosen its oversight of accreditors whose portfolio of institutions generally have good student outcomes, and turn up the heat on agencies that oversee many institutions with poor student outcomes.
"This critical reform would provide an incentive for accreditors to scrutinize the student outcomes of the schools in their portfolios and focus their time and attention on lower-performing schools," the department's memo said. Doing so "would encourage low-performing accreditors to improve their schools’, and by extension their own, performance."
Other proposals from the department include allowing accreditors to pay less attention to high-performing institutions so they can free up resources to scrutinize low-performing ones, standardizing the terminology accreditors use and making public more documents that accreditors produce when evaluating a college.
In addition, the administration wants Congress to require accreditors to judge whether "high-risk" colleges have an appropriate plan to wind down their operations and allow students to complete their education elsewhere. Accreditors would also be responsible for making sure those institutions have the resources to fund such a contingency plan, which is often referred to as "teach out."
Ben Miller, a former policy adviser at the Education Department who is now senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, praised the administration for publishing data about accreditors and the institutions they oversee.
"It's a good centralization of a lot of information that was previously available elsewhere," he said.
Still, he questioned whether shaming accreditors with data about how the students perform at their accredited institutions would lead to any actual changes.
"It's not going to affect their business," he said, noting that students and families choosing colleges are not customers of accrediting agencies. "Transparency can't be the only pressure point."
The announcement won praise from the American Council on Education, the umbrella lobbying association for colleges and universities.
Molly Corbett Broad, the group’s president, said in a statement that the administration’s actions are “important and worthwhile steps, and we support the closer working relationship this package would encourage between the Department of Education and accreditors.”
But the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which advocates for accreditation on behalf of colleges and universities, was far less conciliatory.
“While we need to study the Department of Education’s announcement closely, the increasing push by federal officials to tie accreditation status more closely and explicitly to evidence of institutional performance is pressuring accreditation to move in that direction,” Judith Eaton, the group’s president, said in an email. “One way or the other, I think accreditors’ role is changing, in ways that take us away from some of our current practices.”
The leaders of accrediting agencies had mixed reviews of the administration’s announcement.
“My quick reaction is there aren’t any huge surprises,” said Barbara Brittingham, president of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education at the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. She said that accreditors would be glad that the administration had not sought to impose any “bright-line” standards of graduation rates or other metrics.
Although she praised the administration’s focus on data, she noted that much of the data provided by the federal government is limited. Graduation rates, for instance, measure only first-time, full-time students.
“It’s easy when you’re looking at numbers in the College Scorecard to believe that they’re telling the whole story and that they’re sufficient to act on,” she said. But regional accreditors, she added, are able to look at a more complete picture of what is happening at an institution.
The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, one of the largest national accrediting agencies, which has come under fire for its approval of Corinthian Colleges in the months leading up to its collapse, said that it welcomed the Education Department’s efforts to improve coordination and information sharing with accreditors.
“However,” Albert C. Gray, the group’s president said in a statement, “ACICS objects to the call for Congress to allow the U.S. Department of Education to establish standards for student achievement and academic quality by repealing explicit prohibitions to the contrary in the Higher Education Act.”