Accreditors Urged to Push Harder on Outcomes

April 25, 2018

After being criticized by policy makers and others for not doing enough to crack down on poorly performing colleges, the nation's regional accreditors in February began a project to learn more about graduation metrics and how to prod colleges to improve them. But a report on the project, which the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC) released in February, stopped short of recommending harsh sanctions based solely on low graduation rates -- setting so-called bright lines.

The Center for American Progress has been a critic of the regional and national accreditors that serve as gatekeepers to federal financial aid, in part because of the lack of significant, accreditor-imposed consequences for colleges with problematically low student outcomes. CAP today released a report about an analysis it conducted on the policies and practices of 11 accrediting agencies (all institutional ones that oversee access to federal financial aid). The report included some positive findings, noting that many accreditors collect information on graduation rates and other student success metrics. But CAP said accreditors still need a "sizable mentality shift" to better define what constitutes adequate performance by colleges, and to do more to require that institutions meet performance standards.

"The lack of true accountability means accreditors avoid engaging with the poorest outcomes and fail to help institutions improve how well they serve students in a tangible way," according to the report.

CAP is opposed to bright lines, said Antoinette Flores, an associate director for postsecondary education policy. But she said accreditors have other tools and sanctions they can use to push colleges harder on student outcomes. She also called for more standardization on metrics and policies among accrediting agencies.

The graduation rate study from the regional accreditors showed how the agencies are using data in new ways, including with the introduction of predictive analytics and by benchmarking performance across institutions, sectors and regions, Barbara Gellman-Danley, president of the Higher Learning Commission and C-RAC's chair, said in a written statement.

"While the new report understates the data we have," she said of the release from CAP, "we welcome more focused discussion on these issues and know that there is more to be done to help students succeed in ways that are appropriate for our diverse and complex higher education system."

Likewise, Jamienne S. Studley, a former official at the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration who last year was picked to lead the Western Association of Schools and Colleges' Senior College and University Commission, said CAP's recommendations "fit neatly" with the accreditors' ongoing work on a graduation rate dashboard, benchmarking and collaboration with federal agencies to build common data.

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