Recent discussion about higher education reform has centered on using output metrics to allocate federal dollars, but experts said the approach only scratches the surface. The real culprit, they said, is a flawed accreditation system.
Lawmakers have proposed a number of ways to reform higher education. Most recently, President Obama unveiled a plan that would determine the federal financial aid available to a school based on metrics including graduation rates, employment rates after college and advanced degree attainment rates. But some experts said the focus should target a more direct link between quality institutions and funding: the accreditation system, which has a long-standing tradition of defining prestige through superficial inputs such as enrollment numbers and acceptance rates.
That goal is similar to Obama’s past proposals, said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and “mirrors in many respects” the White House’s concerns as they relate to higher education reform.
Accreditation has long decided which universities have access to federal financial aid dollars. It acts as a stamp of approval for a school’s quality, a signal to the government and private investors that a school is worthy of their investment. It’s also subjective, as it is determined by independent accrediting bodies that have varying standards.
While basing federal funds on a school’s graduation rates could effect some change, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective or efficient at improving school quality as challenging accreditation standards, Neal said. Take away a school’s accreditation, and the flow of federal money can stop altogether—sending a stronger message than tapering funds later down the road, as Obama’s plan suggested.
“The regulatory approach has failed to protect the taxpayer and failed to ensure educational quality in our colleges and universities,” Neal said. “Today, there are schools which graduate in the single digits, and yet they are still accredited, and federal dollars are still being poured into those institutions.”
The government recognizes more than 50 accrediting organizations and is required by law to publish a list on the Education Department website. Some institutions accredit schools of specific disciplines, such as massage therapy, education and theater, while others only look at schools in the Midwest and still others are national institutions looking at schools of all kinds.
This university received its accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, but so did Coppin State University, another University System of Maryland school, which has with a 4.6 percent four-year graduation rate compared to this university’s 62 percent rate, according to a December 2012 report by the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
“Very legitimate questions can be raised about ‘What have the accreditors been doing if they are allowing these institutions to do so poorly when it comes to student success?’” Neal said.
While some accreditation institutions, such as the New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, which accredits top schools including Brown, Yale and Harvard universities, include graduation rates in their evaluation criteria, the MSCHE website doesn’t list graduation rates in their criteria. Rather, MSCHE places an emphasis on financial stability and program quality.
It’s this disparity in criteria that allows schools with very low graduation rates to maintain their accreditation status and education department recognition and thus receive federal dollars, said David Bergeron, postsecondary education vice president at the Center for American Progress.
“How can you be an educational institution if 1 percent of your students graduate?” Bergeron said. “You’re not an educational institution. You pretend to be, but you’re not really delivering high-quality education.”
Bergeron added that those institutions “should be thrown out,” but “accreditors don’t do that.”
Further, accreditation information is difficult to find and use objectively.
The accreditation process now comes as a disadvantage to the consumer because it only tells prospective students if the university passed the accreditor’s muster, Neal said, not whether it produces successful students or helps students to graduate.
“There’s sort of a yes-or-no system; you’re accredited or not,” Neal said. “That’s the only information that consumers would receive. You don’t know what it means.”
And as Obama and policymakers have been looking to contain the ever-growing cost of higher education, Neal said a failed accreditation system has become one of the drivers.
“It has, over years, measured quality on the basis of inputs: how many books, how many students, how many tenured professors, how many hours in the seat, as opposed to looking at whether or not schools were actually doing a good job of education,” Neal said. “It has, I think, forced prices up because of its focus on inputs.”
The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity in the Education Department has brought forth proposals that Neal said address some of the concerns with the current process. The best way to address the shortcomings of the accreditation process, Neal said, would be to provide better data on the success of institutions when it comes to graduation rates, tuition rates and student success postgraduation and also to require certification by an independent auditor that deems a school financially stable.
Neal said policymakers are taking note of the status quo and may be more likely to challenge it as the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, a federal law governing federal financial aid, begins next week. However, Bergeron said there is still a lot of support for the accreditation, no matter how unwarranted it may be.
“Everybody thinks that accreditation is some sort of a sacred thing … that’s serving some magic purpose,” Bergeron said. “I just don’t see it.”