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The Obama administration on Friday told accreditors to focus more on enforcing standards that measure student achievement and to consider additional scrutiny for colleges with significant problems.

The new guidance from the U.S. Department of Education is the latest in a series of attempts by the White House to encourage accreditors to tighten up in their role as gatekeepers for federal financial aid.

A group of 24 U.S. Senate Democrats also weighed in on accreditation on Friday. In a letter to the department, the senators said accreditors too often allow colleges with “shockingly poor performance” to retain their accreditation. They called on the department to conduct thorough reviews of accreditors to ensure they enforce rigorous standards.

Accreditors have faced a torrent of criticism during the last year. Much of that heat is due to anger over student debt, the collapse of Corinthian Colleges, which held national accreditation until it folded, and recent articles by The Wall Street Journal that found $16 billion of federal aid in 2014 went to accredited colleges with graduation rates of less than 33 percent.

The White House has cracked down in response, to the extent that it can. In the last year the department has pushed for accreditors to be more transparent about sanctions they impose, to report more information about troubled institutions and to focus more on whether colleges are graduating students who can get jobs and pay off their loans.

The new Dear Colleague letter from the department seeks to clarify the flexibility accreditors have to spend more resources on colleges and programs that appear deserving of scrutiny. That means laws and regulations currently allow accreditors to require troubled colleges to seek renewal more often, the department said, or that they can do more frequent monitoring or unannounced visits of problem colleges than for those in good standing.

In addition, the flexibility the department describes in the nine-page letter is designed to respond to another major criticism of accreditors, which is that the agencies should ask less of colleges with a track record of good outcomes -- a line of argument promoted by Princeton University and other elite institutions. That energy should be redirected to likely bad actors, the department said, relieving high-quality institutions from unnecessary red tape.

The letter also describes accreditation standards the department deems “most relevant” to ensuring a quality education.

“Today, the department clarified that accreditors have not only the flexibility but the responsibility to focus their resources on the institutions that present the greatest risk,” Ted Mitchell, the U.S. under secretary of education, said in a written statement. “The department’s guidance states the basis for this flexibility and identifies the statutory and regulatory criteria the department believes contribute significantly to effective monitoring.”

Princeton University, among others, has long pushed for accreditation to differentiate between colleges based on their track records.

"The letter supports the idea that for institutions with a continuing record of financial responsibility and high achievement in relation to their mission -- as measured by such metrics as retention, graduation, default and job placement rates -- the principal focus of the accreditation review may be a self-study and on-site visit on selected topics in areas where the institution seeks to improve or expand," said Bob Durkee, vice president and secretary at Princeton. "For institutions with strong track records, these are the most useful forms of review, and if the agency streamlines its compliance review for these institutions it can reallocate some of its resources to institutions that require more detailed review."

The department's preferred standards for quality may vary depending on a college’s characteristics or mission, but the letter cited rates for student graduation and retention, loan default, and job placement as measures worth considering.***Two grafs above here are new - PF

“Many accreditors look at completion rates; we encourage those currently without this metric to consider adding it,” said the letter. “Similarly, job placement rates have been adopted by many accreditors as a standard of student achievement; success in obtaining employment cannot be ignored in accrediting institutions that offer occupational programs.”

Checks and Balances

The department can’t require accreditors to set so-called bright line standards, such as by dropping accreditation and federal aid eligibility for a college or academic program with a graduation rate below a certain percentage. For that to happen, the U.S. Congress would have to lift its ban on specific requirements for accreditors.

As a result, the feds’ best way to crack down on accreditors is the process through which the nonprofit agencies are recognized as approved gatekeepers to federal financial aid. A federal committee, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, reviews accreditors for this recognition, with the U.S. secretary of education making the final call.

Two accreditors have faced recent challenges at the federal level -- the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools for its oversight of Corinthian and several other controversial for-profit chains, and the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges over its sanctioning of California community colleges, most notably City College of San Francisco.

In the letter the department said actions and standards of “comparable” accreditors would be part of how the feds measure the agencies' effectiveness.

“The Higher Education Act states that the department may find an agency ineffective if it accredits an institution or program that is the subject of any interim action by another accrediting agency,” the letter said.

Likewise, the department said it might question the effectiveness of an accreditor if that agency does not use a metric for student retention, for example, while its peer accreditors use retention rates as a gauge of quality.

A 'Ratcheting Up'

Paul Gaston, a Trustees Professor at Kent State University and an expert on accreditation, said the letter was a welcome development. He said many, if not most, accreditors already offer "differentiation" in their review processes based on indicators of quality and sustainability. Gaston in particular praised the promised attention to accreditors relative to their peers.

"Most accrediting associations will welcome the emphasis on student achievement as measured by degree completion and job placement rates," Gaston said via email. "Many already recommend that such data be maintained and reported, but the letter should continue the present trend from recommendations to requirements."

The department's pledge to scrutinize comparable accreditors raises complex questions, said Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which advocates for accreditation on behalf of colleges and universities.

The department appears interested in the kinds of evidence of student outcomes that accreditors gather, she said, as well how reliable that information is and what accreditors do with it once collected. That’s obviously not the same as imposing a minimum graduation rate threshold. And Eaton said the department will need to factor in differences in colleges, programs and student populations when making comparisons.

As a result, Eaton said the focus on comparable metrics will be more about accreditors’ “engagement” with developing and applying standards than on specific metrics.

Even so, the guidance letter is another sign of a “ratcheting up” of the department’s scrutiny of accreditors, said Eaton, and a “recalibration of the federal government-accreditor relationship.”

The 24 Senate Democrats, however, said they would like to see the department be more aggressive with accreditors. The letter cited ACICS in particular, decrying its “persistent lack of institutional oversight” with Corinthian.

“It is time to hold our accrediting agencies accountable and ensure they are fulfilling their duties to protect students from underperforming, low-quality and sometimes predatory schools,” the senators said. “Accreditors that have significantly failed to live up to their responsibilities do not deserve to serve as gatekeepers to federal funds and should not be recognized by the department.”

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