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Department of Education Demands Greater Accountability from College Accreditors

Accreditation agencies have recently come under fire for failing to keep schools accountable. Now the Education Department is looking to change that.

by Annie Waldman, ProPublica / November 6, 2015

The U.S. Department of Education announced new transparency measures for college accreditors today, encouraging the organizations to focus more on student outcomes such as graduation rates.

As part of a series of legislative recommendations, the agency also called on Congress to give it the power to set standards for how accreditors measure student achievement.

Accreditors are not government agencies but play a critical role in higher education: Colleges must get approval from them in order to gain access to the government’s massive student aid programs. Accreditation is particularly critical for for-profit colleges, which rely on federal funds for much of their income.

But accreditors often don’t do much to make sure students are getting a quality education.

“Accreditation organizations are watchdogs that don’t bite,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during a press briefing about today’s announcement.

A ProPublica analysis published this week showed that accreditors of for-profit colleges often approve schools where students struggle at remarkably high rates. One accreditor stood out: the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, or ACICS. Only a third of students graduate at a typical four-year college accredited by ACICS. That’s the lowest rate of any accreditor. Students at ACICS-accredited colleges also take on more debt and face greater difficulty in repaying their loans.

Alongside its proposals, the Education Department released data on student outcomes broken down by accreditation agency. Their data also shows that many ACICS-accredited schools are among the poorest performers in the country.

Under current law, the Education Department can’t do much about accreditors that aren’t holding schools to account.

“We will not be able to make accreditation do the work it needs to do for students and taxpayers without congress stepping up,” said Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell during a press briefing.  

The department’s proposals to change that come amid growing scrutiny of accreditation.

A Government Accountability Office report issued last year found that struggling schools are no more likely to be penalized by accreditors than schools with strong student outcomes. This summer, a Wall Street Journal investigation also found that the accreditors of mostly nonprofit schools rarely punish failing schools, even those with single-digit graduation rates.

In a Senate hearing this past summer, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren chastised ACICS’ president for accrediting campuses of Corinthian Colleges despite 20 different state investigations into the for-profit chain.

Earlier this week, several senators spoke on the floor of the Senate, faulting accreditors for propping up for-profit colleges despite federal investigations into fraudulent and predatory tactics.

“Accreditation is the key to the castle for accessing this spigot of federal financial aid,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. “It’s supposed to signify that a program provides a quality education for its students — too often the accreditation means nothing.”

The Department of Education is scheduled to review ACICS’ accrediting status next year.

This story was originally published on ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for the newsletter.

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