4 federal recommendations to improve accreditation

“With reauthorization of the Higher Education Act now before Congress, the question becomes whether to place greater responsibility on the accreditors for regulatory compliance enforcement, or renew their mandate for quality reviews and continuous institutional improvement. To expect that accreditors can do both is unrealistic,” noted John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College.

“Far from being an ironclad guarantee of higher education excellence, accreditation represents a binary evaluation of whether or not an institution satisfies the standards of an independent, non-governmental agency. Moreover, the agency is a membership club, a fraternity where obscure rules and rituals define the process,” said Kevin Kinser, Associate Professor of Education, University at Albany, State University of New York. “With the stakes being incredibly high—success equals access to federal financial aid programs—it is no wonder that accreditation has been accused of failing to protect students from the excesses of the for-profit sector.”

Read more about the problems accreditation faces here.

More groups are stepping up to help ensure the quality of higher education. Entangled Solutions is launching a new service to become a Quality Assurance Entity (QAE) to independently review and monitor the quality of individual higher education programs. It is initially focusing on joint university+bootcamp programs applying to the EQUIP program.

The organization believes a focus on outcomes is important, because while focusing on inputs may keep institutions from progress, focusing on outcomes will encourage continuous improvement for student success.

“We intend to focus measurement on the value that each program claims it is providing students and
match that with what students are in fact ‘buying,'” according to a November 2015 whitepaper. “If, for example, a program claims to provide a career benefit, we will measure that benefit relative to the program’s cost, assess how the program’s benefit compares to alternative options, and report on what students say they wanted and received from the program.”

Government Recommendations

The Department released a list of legislative proposals to increase efforts to highlight and improve higher education outcomes, along with protecting students and taxpayers.

1.Drive accountability through outcomes-driven and differentiated recognition: The Department recommends that Congress repeal the statutory prohibition on its ability to set and enforce expectations regarding student achievement standards in accreditor recognition.

2.Require robust teach-out plans and reserve funds for high-risk institutions: As illustrated by the closure of Corinthian Colleges, sudden closures of institutions that leave students with limited or no options to continue their studies present a major challenge. While institutions are already required to submit teach-out plans to accreditors following emergency actions or when a school plans to close, this is too little, too late in most cases. The Department recommends that Congress establish recognition standards that require accreditors to request more complete teach-out plans from high-risk institutions based on an expanded set of outcomes and other risk indicators.

3.Establish a set of standardized, common definitions and data reporting: Frequently, accreditors use different language and terminology to describe similar things, often with significant variation across accreditors. In 2012, the American Council on Education encouraged accreditors to “reduce these discrepancies” and to “use a common vocabulary and associated set of definitions,” as well as to use “statistical reporting requirements that are consistent with existing state and federal definitions.” While recognizing variation, the Department recommends that Congress require a single federal vocabulary for major actions and terms, including sanctions and key outcomes.

4.Increase transparency on an expanded set of accreditation material and actions: The Department will begin doing what it can under current law to increase transparency. However, more needs to be done. The Department recommends that Congress require all final accreditation documents relating to academic and institutional quality be made publicly available for each eligible institution participating under Title IV, and published at a federally maintained website.

The Department also announced a series of executive actions designed to improve accreditors’ and the Department’s oversight activities and place a new focus on student outcomes and transparency:

  • Publishing each accreditor’s standards for evaluating student outcomes
  • Increasing transparency in the accreditation process and in institutional oversight
  • Increasing coordination within the Department and among accreditors, other agencies, and states to improve oversight
  • Publishing key student and institutional metrics for postsecondary institutions arranged by accreditors
  • Promoting greater attention to outcomes within current accreditor review processes

For an in-depth look at the Department’s recommendations, click here.

Laura Ascione