U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Dick Durbin and Brian Schatz on Thursday introduced legislation that would increase accountability for accreditors and require new standards for student outcomes they use to evaluate colleges and universities. Warren and Durbin have frequently called for greater accountability in higher education, particularly in the for-profit college sector. But the bill suggests a new focus by consumer advocates on the role of accrediting agencies in providing oversight of colleges.
Earlier this week, the umbrella organization of seven regional accrediting bodies announced that its members would conduct a joint review of institutions with extremely low graduation rates -- a move that followed heavy scrutiny of accreditors’ performance in both the media and policy circles.
The Accreditation Reform and Enhanced Accountability Act would direct the Education Department to establish clear student outcome data, require accreditors to respond quickly to both state and federal investigations, add more transparency to accreditation decisions, address conflict-of-interest issues involving accreditors and the colleges they oversee, and give the department more power to punish or terminate failing accreditors, among other measures.
“Accrediting agencies are supposed to make sure students get a good education and ensure colleges aren’t cheating students while sucking down taxpayer money. But right now the accreditation system is broken,” Warren said. “This bill gives the Education Department more tools to hold accreditors accountable, increases accreditors’ focus on student outcomes and affordability, and requires accreditors to respond when there is evidence of colleges committing fraud.”
The Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions this week highlighted issues involving discrepancies in federal data on student outcomes, specifically involving graduation rates. The group of regional accreditors cited a need for better data from the Department of Education and said its members would consider additional information in their review of institutions with low graduation rates.