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Challenges of U.S.D.E Accreditation Crackdown

JANUARY 4, 2016

The United States Department of Education says it is going to get tougher with college accreditation agencies.  In announcing a set of new college accreditation measures late in 2015, Secretary Arne Duncan reiterated his criticism that accreditors are the "watchdogs that don't bite."  But will the Department of Education have more bark than bite as it attempts to implement tougher standards? 

The administration recently unveiled ambitious legislative proposals on accreditation, calling on Congress to give the Department of Education the power to force accreditation agencies to stop approving colleges where too few students graduate and many are unable to repay their student loans.  Since this plan faces long odds of going anywhere in the current Congress, much of the attention on accreditation in the coming months will focus on how the Obama administration enforces existing federal accreditation rules.  But it is very unclear whether the administration will really back up its tough rhetoric on accreditation given the governments own track record.

Although the Department of Education does not directly regulate accrediting organizations, it decides which accreditors carry any weight in the eyes of the federal government.  There is a review cycle for all accreditation agencies in which they must demonstrate compliance with a range of criteria outlined in federal law and regulation.
The Department has rarely stripped accrediting agencies of their federal recognition.  Since colleges must be accredited by a federally recognized accreditation agency in order to receive federal aid, such an action could have drastic consequences for colleges and students.

I believe that the Department of Education would be well served if they were to focus the majority of its attention on the higher education sector where most of the problems exist with respect to graduation rates and loan default rates--the career-related and the for-profit institutions.  There are currently 7,896 institutions that are accredited by a recognized accreditation agency.  Of this number, 3,049 institutions are recognized by a regional agency and 503 by a  national faith-related agency.  These are the not-for-profit institutions that traditionally do much better on the common measurements for success, particularly when it comes to graduation, employment, and repayment of student loans.  There are another 4,344 institutions that are recognized by a national career-related agency.  This is where the majority of the propriety schools fit and this is where the problems most commonly surface relative to completion rates and loan default rates. 

It is unfortunate that long standing, respected, degree-granting colleges and universities are being painted with the same brush as the for-profit, non-degree-granting institutions.  Shouldn't the focus of the Department of Education be on the accrediting agencies where the greatest problems exist relative to standard measurements of higher education success?  This is one man's opinion!

Larry J. McKinney
Higher Education Consultant

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