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President Biden standing at a podium with Education Secretary Miguel Cardo on his

The Biden administration is eyeing a number of changes to the rules for higher education accreditors.

Alex Wong/Staff/Getty Images

After years of debate and calls for the watchdogs of higher education to crack down on institutions with poor student outcomes, the nation’s accrediting agencies could be required to set benchmarks for student achievement.

Accreditors are charged with monitoring the quality of colleges and universities and serve as gatekeepers to institutions’ access to federal financial aid. Lawmakers, advocates and analysts across the political spectrum have argued for years that accreditors are failing in their quality-assurance role, pointing to low graduation rates at accredited institutions, among other data points.

The Biden administration has proposed requiring accreditors to set minimum expectations of performance on a number of standards such as graduation and licensure pass rates. The specific metrics would be up to each accreditor. This change, if enacted, would represent a significant shift for the Education Department, which has sought to strengthen the oversight of colleges and universities.

What exactly this proposal means for institutions is unclear, though critics of accreditors hope it will push the agencies and institutions to focus more intently on student achievement. If a college or university fell below any one benchmark or performance standard, it likely wouldn’t lose access to federal financial aid.

Whether and how to require accreditors to set student-achievement benchmarks became a key point of contention among the rule-making committee tasked with reviewing the regulatory change. The committee, which began deliberations in January, wrapped up its discussions last week without reaching consensus on the accreditation proposal. That basically gives the Education Department free rein to propose whatever it likes. Any proposed regulations will be subject to public comment and won’t take effect until July 1, 2025, at the earliest.

Several of the committee members were critical of accreditors, arguing that their ongoing failures to cut off low-performing programs from financial aid have led to a lack of trust in the system.

“As this committee is deliberating, there are vets being enrolled in lousy programs enjoying full accreditation. I would bet my life on that proposition,” Barmak Nassirian, the vice president for higher education at Veterans Education Success who represented veterans and military students on the committee, said at last week’s meeting.

Proponents of the policy change say it’s a step in the right direction toward protecting students from low-quality academic programs. Representatives of accreditors and institutions generally agreed that the system needs to improve but said accrediting agencies are already using student achievement data to assess colleges and universities. The regulatory requirement is unnecessary, they said.

There is "not a single number to evaluate an institutions’ effectiveness,” said Jamienne Studley, the president of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission, who represented institutional accreditors on the committee. “You need to look at multiple dimensions. Applying them together to get a picture of how the institution is doing requires the judgment that an accreditor can bring to it.”

Studley and others on the committee said that conversations about how to use student achievement data to assess institutions would be better handled by the board that oversees accreditors, rather than through regulation. That board—National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI)—has pushed but doesn’t require accreditors to focus more on student outcomes and data in its reviews of agencies. (NACIQI and the Education Department review accreditors every five years or so.)

As an example of what’s already happening, Studley notes that, in 2016, the Council of Regional Accrediting Commission started more closely scrutinizing four-year institutions with graduation rates at or below 25 percent.

“It speaks to the idea that we recognize the value of data and outcomes as flags,” she said. “We just don’t want them to turn into axes.”

Emily Rounds, an education policy advisor at Third Way, a left-of-center think tank, said that accrediting an institution should signal that the college provides a quality education and uses taxpayer dollars responsibly. That isn’t currently the case, based on her research, she said.

In a recent analysis, Rounds found that $20 billion in federal financial aid went to institutions in 2021–22 that graduated less than half of their students. Of that pot, $4 billion went to colleges where fewer than 25 percent of students graduated. The national graduation rate is 61.2 percent.

“The purpose of going to an institution of higher education is to make more money or to get a better job,” she said. “If schools are failing students on those accounts, then accreditation is failing at its job … These regulations are a step in helping to protect students from schools that fail to support, graduate and equip them with a strong return on their tuition.”

The provision on student achievement standards is one of several changes in the department’s nearly 70-page proposal updating the rules for accrediting agencies. The department also is proposing to address potential conflicts of interest on accreditors’ boards, retool complaint policies and make sure the agencies can focus their resources on reviewing the riskiest institutions, among other items.

Some experts say the new rules could strengthen oversight of college programs and ensure that accreditation status matters. “Overall, this is a really strong step forward,” said Clare McCann, director of higher education at Arnold Ventures, a philanthropic group. “We see the department really sharpening its focus on the Title IV link … and really making sure there’s actual rigor behind accreditation.” (Title IV is the part of the Higher Education Act that authorizes federal financial aid programs.)

McCann noted the growing bipartisan consensus that accreditors need to be doing more. While Democrats have traditionally been some of the accreditors’ chief critics, House Republicans have recently proposed their own bill to overhaul higher education and accreditation, which would also require accrediting agencies to create standards that measure student achievement.

“We’ve had, over and over again, institutions falling short for years and years and years and accreditors failing to take action,” she said. “I think policymakers are sick of spending taxpayer dollars and subjecting students to these institutions that are supposed to be demonstrating a minimum level of quality in order to be accredited in the first place.”

Studley said that accreditors are working to learn from history. “We are committed to improving both our process of processing and the outcomes for students, which is the ultimate objective,” she said.

Jo Alice Blondin, president of Clark State College and the committee member representing community colleges, said that many accreditors have shown continuous improvement. Blondin is chair of the Higher Learning Commission, an accreditor.

“To imagine that accreditors are not responsive or focused on continuous improvement even for themselves is disingenuous,” she said. “Accreditors are not perfect, but we’re making serious efforts at the guidance of NACIQI to make these changes.”

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