The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Inspector General last week released the results of an audit on the department's recognition processes for accrediting agencies, which serve as the gatekeepers for federal financial aid. The audit found several weaknesses, with concerns that revolved around inadequate supporting documents accreditors present to the department -- a process the inspector general said is subject to "cherry-picking" by the agencies.
"We found that the Office of Postsecondary Education's post-recognition oversight is not adequate to ensure agencies consistently and effectively carry out their responsibilities," the audit report said. "OPE does not have an adequate plan for the post-recognition oversight of agencies and does not regularly perform reviews of high-risk agencies during the recognition period."
The audit was based on reviews of five accrediting agencies -- four institutional and one specialized -- which the inspector general did not name in the report. It used data from "dashboards" the department created during the Obama administration in an attempt to better keep track of the performance of accreditors.
When an accrediting agency makes the case for continued recognition to the department, the audit found, it can use compliance information for as few as two colleges.
"OPE takes a reactive approach to post-recognition oversight and performs oversight activities for an agency only if it is alerted that compliance or other issues may exist at that agency," the inspector general said. "This could result in no oversight for some agencies, including newly recognized or higher risk agencies, for up to five years. In addition, OPE’s oversight approach may not identify significant agency issues soon enough to mitigate or prevent potential harm to accredited schools, students or taxpayers."
The department under Obama made the rare move to yank recognition for a national accreditor, the Accrediting Council of Independent Colleges and Schools, which oversaw many for-profit colleges, including two large chains that collapsed. However, the Trump administration restored ACICS's recognition, despite finding numerous failures by the accreditor to improve, according to an internal staff report the department later released.