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Accrediting agencies have taken flak in recent years for their oversight of poorly performing colleges, including those with low graduation rates.

That scrutiny peaked in 2015, after a series of high-profile closures of for-profit colleges, when The Wall Street Journal published an investigation of how accreditors deal with problem colleges under the headline "The Watchdogs of College Education Rarely Bite."

The seven regional accrediting agencies responded the following year by beginning a project on graduation rates. Today the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions released a review of that work.

While the effort has largely been about gathering more and better information on graduation metrics, and about colleges with low rates, the report also describes what accreditors can do to prod colleges on student completion.

However, the council stops short of recommending harsh sanctions based solely on a low graduation rate. And the report argues that the so-called bright-line approach -- nixing a college’s federal aid eligibility because its graduation rate is, say, less than 10 percent -- would be a mistake.

One reason is because graduation rates are based on a college's performance in the past. As a result, the metrics “do not reflect improvements made by an institution within the previous five to seven years and thus are not suitable to serve as a single, ‘bright-line’ indicator,” the regional accreditors said.

“Because graduation data lag behind real-time indicators such as course completion rates and retention rates,” the report said, “they provide institutions with little guidance to help interpret what is causing low graduation rates or to plan strategic action to increase retention and graduation.”

For some critics of accreditors, the report might be unsatisfying for not taking a harder line on extremely low graduation rates. But the council said the project has featured a substantial tightening of the screws.

For example, a low graduation rate is an automatic trigger for regional accreditors to conduct additional reviews, said Barbara Gellman-Danley, president of the Higher Learning Commission, the largest regional accreditor. And if a college fails to improve, it could face sanctions, including the loss of aid eligibility.

“We stepped up our game. We got their attention,” said Gellman-Danley, who chairs the council, adding that the graduation rate project has “put a lot of pressure on our schools.”

Clare McCann, deputy director for federal policy at New America’s Higher Education Initiative, praised the regional accreditors for taking some ownership of the debate about how best to consider student outcomes. But while the report showed progress in how accreditors factor in graduation rates, McCann said more work is needed.

“It's promising to see accreditors are no longer outwardly rejecting the notion that they should consider the outcomes of their institutions,” said McCann, who worked at the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration, which often was critical of accreditors’ oversight of for-profits. “But the C-RAC report definitely highlights that accreditors are a little behind the curve and have a long way to go to turn these heightened reviews into real action, and in considering other metrics that might be appropriate for evaluating colleges' performance.”

Graduation rates are both misleading and important, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. The rates are based on incomplete and often flawed data, but graduating students is obviously important.

Hartle said the accreditation council was taking the right approach.

"The accreditors are using graduation rates as a 'flashing yellow light' because a low rate may indicate a problem," he said. "It’s a good illustration of how accreditation serves the public interest and recognizes the diversity of higher education. By using federal data to identify potential problems but interpreting that information on a campus-by-campus basis, accreditors can assure themselves and the public that institutions are on a firm academic footing.”

A Complex Metric

The council’s graduation rate project is centered on an analysis of federal data to identify and review four-year institutions that had six-year graduation rates of 25 percent or less and community colleges with three-year rates at or below 15 percent.

A total of 397 institutions fell below those thresholds, which is about 14 percent of the nation’s regionally accredited colleges. Roughly three-quarters of the reviewed colleges were open-admission community colleges, the report said. And almost half of the colleges had enrollments where the majority of students are from minority backgrounds.

The report breaks down the mix of colleges with low graduation rates in more detail, without naming any of them. The public sector accounted for 83 percent of the total -- with 22 percent of public colleges falling below the line. Among the nation’s 99 regionally accredited for-profit colleges, 11 triggered the low graduation rate review. And about three-quarters of the reviewed colleges predominantly issue certificates and associate degrees.

However, federal graduation rate data are notoriously incomplete. As the report notes, the graduation rate for the department’s College Scorecard, which improves on previous federal metrics, only includes first-time, full-time students. As a result, the rate misses most of the students who attend community colleges, for-profits and other open-access institutions.

To get a more complete picture during their review, the regional accreditors drew additional graduation rate data from the National Student Clearinghouse and other databases. They also used a longer time horizon of six years for community college students, to better reflect the fact that students on average take 5.6 years to earn a degree at a two-year college.

As a result, graduation rates for community colleges in the analysis nearly doubled, to 40 percent from 21 percent under the federal metric.

When the accreditors used the College Scorecard’s new data, which hadn't been released before the project began, the number of colleges falling below the threshold dropped to 226. It fell to 101 with six-year rates.

Just 65 colleges fell below the threshold when students who had previously attended college (as opposed to first-time students only) were added to the metric. But the addition of part-time students brought that number back up to 150.

Gellman-Danley said the number of colleges with subpar graduation rates remains a serious problem.

"A lot needs to be done to improve them," she said.

Even so, a bright-line cutoff would fail to recognize the complexity of the graduation rate challenge, according to Gellman-Danley.

"A low graduation rate reflects other things," she said, including the open-access mission of colleges and, in some cases, declining state support. "Graduation rates are very complex."

The report makes the case for regional accreditors having a stronger voice in discussions about improving federal graduation metrics and making them more consistent. And it calls on the federal government to work with colleges and accreditors to develop and use other meaningful ways of measuring institutional quality, such as course completion and student retention rates.

In the meantime, the regional accreditors said they will continue to scrutinize colleges with low graduation rates.

"Accreditors have put institutions on notice that oversight and monitoring is real, ongoing and that they will take appropriate action as needed," the report said.

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