Strengthening Accreditation to Protect Students

As I wrote back in February, accreditation plays a critical role in protecting students and taxpayers. Students and families trust that approval from an accrediting agency means that a school or program prepares its graduates for work and life. The federal government also relies on accreditation to affirm that the education provided by that institution or program is a worthy investment of taxpayer dollars.  Unfortunately, in recent years, we’ve seen far too many schools maintain their institutional accreditation even while defrauding and misleading students, providing poor quality education, or closing without recourse for students. This is inexcusable. Accreditation can and must be the mark of quality that the public expects.

That’s why the Department has been working to strengthen the accreditation system. We have published information about accreditors’ standards and the student outcomes at the institutions and programs they have approved. We are taking steps to increase transparency around accreditors’ reviews of institutions and resulting actions. We will soon publish guidance to encourage accreditors to use the flexibility they have in order to target their resources to problematic and poorly performing institutions and programs. And we are increasing our focus on outcomes in our own process of recognizing accreditors.

A sharpened focus on outcomes is particularly important for accreditors whose institutions have consistently shown below-average outcomes and more than their share of student complaints, investigations, and other indicators of concern. For instance, despite a history of significant and deeply concerning problems, the accreditation status of the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges, Inc. institutions was maintained or renewed by multiple accreditors. And those schools are just one example of the institutions that have maintained their accreditation while putting students, borrowers, and taxpayers at risk.

The Department is committed to strengthening its monitoring and review of agencies that have accredited such institutions. Specifically, we are increasing the rigor of our fact-finding process with the accreditors coming up for review this summer, as well as in other review and recognition processes going forward. This process includes requiring responses to questions about how the accreditor’s standards, policies, and practices allowed such poor and problematic performance to develop and continue; the specific actions an accreditor took and when; and how the accreditor plans to changes its practices to prevent those same situations from arising with similar institutions. This information will inform the Department’s decisions regarding recognition for accrediting agencies.

We encourage public comment to help inform these reviews of accrediting agency recognition. About three months before each meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), which makes recommendations to the Department on accrediting agency recognition, the list of agencies scheduled for review is posted in the Federal Register. The agenda for the June 2016 meeting and specific instructions for submitting public comment can be found here. Public comments on those agencies are due by April 8.

While we continue to explore every option the Department has to strengthen its own processes, we need Congress to step up, too. The Department’s authority to conduct oversight of and take action with accreditors is narrowly limited by statute. In our November 2015 announcement, we described the executive actions we were taking to strengthen transparency and accountability—and we also called on Congress to take up a series of legislative proposals. Those proposals would allow greater action to ensure quality and protect students. We hope that Congress heeds this call, and we look forward to working together to ensure greater accountability for accrediting agencies, and to protect students, families, and taxpayers.