Report on Accountability and Higher Ed's 'Triad'

November 19, 2019

A new report from New America recommends a wide range of changes to higher education's regulatory triad, the three primary types of regulators for the industry: accreditors, state agencies and the U.S. Department of Education.

These regulatory bodies are failing to adequately oversee colleges, at the expense of millions of students, wrote Amy Laitinen, director for higher education with New America's education policy program, and Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy at the think tank based in Washington (and an occasional opinion contributor to Inside Higher Ed).

"Too often, the system of shared accountability devolves into a game of hot potato, with no one member of the triad willing to take serious action against an institution of higher education that falls short until other members of the triad have stepped up," they said. "With potentially severe consequences for a college -- and its students -- each member of the triad has a tendency to wait several beats too long before enforcing any severe action against a college, often no matter how poor the institution."

The report recommends that the federal government "restore minimal oversight" of accreditors and ensure that student outcomes are central to what accreditors do, among other suggestions. It said states also should strengthen their roles in protecting consumers of higher education by collecting complaints about colleges and subjecting online colleges to rigorous oversight. And the recommendations for the Education Department include a reformed structure for its Federal Student Aid office, to increase risk-based reviews of colleges and to improve financial monitoring of private colleges, among others.

"The Education Department plays a particular role in ensuring baseline consumer protection exists for all students, regardless of where they live or which accrediting agency their college selected," said the report. "Yet over the decades since passage of the Higher Education Act, the Education Department has often failed to anticipate and prevent poor outcomes for students and taxpayers and [to hold] institutions accountable when they fall short."

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