Scrutiny for Accreditors on Poor Student Outcomes

June 26, 2015

This has been a rough week for higher education accreditors. Days after a Wall Street Journal article raised questions about whether the agencies are doing enough to improve (or, alternatively, shut down) institutions that struggle to retain and graduate students, the committee that advises the U.S. education secretary on accreditation took up much the same theme Thursday at its semiannual session to review some accrediting bodies.

During a review of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, members of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) -- led by a new student member, Simon J. Boehme -- listed colleges and universities that are in good standing with the commission despite having federal graduation rates of under 20 percent. Some committee members suggested that there should be "bright lines" on key indicators such as retention and graduation below which accreditors punish colleges, which is not typically how accreditation works now. (The discussions Thursday were resonant of similar conversations a decade ago, when then Education Secretary Margaret Spellings pushed NACIQI to put pressure on colleges about whether their students were learning enough, and suggested "bright lines" below which institutions should be penalized.

Officials of the Higher Learning Commission and some members of the accreditation panel noted that the federal graduation rates for some institutions capture small proportions of their total student bodies and may not be representative of how most students are faring. But there was little disagreement that retention and graduation rates at many institutions could be better, and that there was a role for accreditors to play in prodding the institutions they oversee to perform better. Discussion on Friday is likely to return to how that might be done most effectively (and without inappropriate federal intervention).

Also on Thursday, the accreditation panel voted to recommend that the education secretary strip federal recognition from the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, which has been locked for years in a confounding feud with the National League for Nursing over control and independence. Members of the panel expressed confusion over why the two groups had been unable to reach agreement, alternately wondering whether the two organizations were greedy and power hungry. More than one called it "embarrassing" for the nursing profession that they groups returned before the panel, for the third time in four years, having not resolved their differences.

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