For its most recent hearing on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee delved into accreditation―what it is and how it might be improved. A number of accrediting bodies in the United States have come under scrutiny in the past few years for their involvement in monitoring at-risk or predatory institutions, according to senators and witnesses at the Wednesday hearing.
Accrediting bodies are tasked with monitoring the quality of institutions and assessing whether students are gaining a meaningful education by attending them. When institutions are perceived to be failing in some way or fail to meet the accrediting body’s standards, institutions can be sanctioned and, in some extreme cases, closed or change ownership.
Accreditation has been around since the 1800s and started out as a voluntary system to ensure institutional quality. Over time, as more and more of the population attended college, accrediting bodies increasingly became “proxies” for the federal government and gatekeepers of Title IV, or federal financial aid and loans. Without an accreditor’s stamp of approval, institutions are not eligible to make use of federal dollars.
Despite their new tasks, their essential function remains much the same as it always was. As a result, hearing witness Dr. George Pruitt, president of Thomas Edison State College and chair of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, said that accrediting agencies are burdened with conflicting expectations. The conflict stems from whether accrediting bodies should be regulating or assessing institutions.
Pruitt compared accreditation to regulation in the financial industry, saying that, although superficially their respective functions may seem similar, they differ. “Regulators … prescribe the things that bankers can do,” he said. “Accreditors tend not to prescribe what academics do and cannot do, as long as the results are such that we can demonstrate they have value to the people that support us.”
In his prepared remarks, Pruitt said that, despite recent criticism of accreditation, it remains “fundamentally sound.” He said federal regulations and compliance bog down accrediting agencies from performing their original mission of assessing the quality of institutions.
A few accrediting bodies have come under scrutiny in the past several years. One notable example of this is the implosion of Corinthian College, Inc. Corinthian was an accredited system of for-profit colleges but has since filed for bankruptcy and sold off its 120 campuses amid allegations of student fraud and deceptive practices.
Before and after Corinthian’s collapse, students have come forward to say that the degrees they earned were not recognized by employers, leaving them no better off than they were before they began to attend the college. In fact, many are now burdened with debt because Corinthian is much more expensive than public schools and even some private institutions. The total debt held by students who attended a Corinthian institution in the past five years is $3.5 billion. Ultimately, the end of Corinthian was affected by the Department of Education, but the question remains as to why it was able to retain accreditation in light of its predatory practices.
In California, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) has been embroiled in a lawsuit with the City College of San Francisco. ACCJC has threatened to revoke the college’s accreditation multiple times, which would result in the college’s probable closure. San Francisco and the college both are pushing back against ACCJC in the form of a lawsuit and years of protest and activism.
According to hearing witness Dr. Peter T. Ewell, vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS), the legal imbroglio surrounding CCSF and ACCJC is a sign of how difficult it can be for accrediting agencies to effect change at the institutions they monitor, due to “contrary legal action.” Ewell said, “I think that there needs to be some things that stiffen [individual accrediting agency’s] backbone a little bit in terms of limitations of liability and things like that.”
Dr. Albert C. Gray, president and CEO of the Accrediting Council for Independent College and Schools (ACICS), the organization that accredited Corinthian, testified at the hearing. He drew criticism from HELP committee members Sen. Al Franken, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Chris Murphy.
“There have been concerns about Corinthian College, and yet accrediting agencies continued to look the other way,” Warren said. “Corinthian enrolled more and more students. It sucked down more and more federal aid, while the private accrediting organization collected more and more fees. And now students and taxpayers are stuck with the bill while there is no accountability for the private accrediting outfits.”
Warren noted that ACICS continued to accredit seven of Corinthian’s campuses, “right up to the bitter end,” and that ACICS is still the accrediting body for IIT Technical Institute, which is also being sued and investigated by federal agencies and multiple state attorney generals.
Gray said that some Corinthian campuses were worse than others, and the bad actors were being monitored by ACICS. As long as institutions meet ACICS standards, he said, they retain their accreditation, whether they are the subject of lawsuits or investigations. He attributed Corinthian’s bankruptcy and change of ownership to financial troubles, not a failure of the accrediting agency.
“Corinthian collapsed, if you want to use that term, because of financial pressure, not because of non-compliance with any regulation,” he said. The Department of Education slowed the college’s access to federal financial aid dollars in the summer of 2014, ultimately resulting in bankruptcy for the corporation and the sale of all its campuses.
Hearing witness Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said ACICS is not the only accrediting agency that is accrediting institutions with low success rates. “Many of these schools are graduating in single digits or low double digits,” she said. “So while Corinthian can be accused of not doing a good job, there are many institutions that are accredited, nonprofit and otherwise that are not doing a good job either. It basically gets back to bottom line issue here … that accreditors are not doing a good job of ensuring educational quality.”
At the start of the hearing, HELP committee chair Sen. Lamar Alexander said in his prepared remarks that, although accreditation is flawed, there are few viable alternatives. “We’d better find a way to make accreditation work better,” he said. “There’s really not another way to do this—to monitor quality. Because if accreditation doesn’t do it, I can assure you that Congress can’t. And the Department of Education certainly doesn’t have the capacity or know-how.”
The Department of Education under the Obama administration has long said that it will produce its own college ratings system, an effort that looks to have been effectively blocked in the 2016 spending bill for the DoE, which came out on Tuesday. Alexander said in his prepared remarks, “[The DoE is] already trying to rate colleges, and no one is optimistic about their efforts – I think they’ll collapse of their own weight.”