The U.S. Department of Education plans to announce on Friday a narrow set of new requirements for the nation’s higher-education accreditors, the private, nonprofit organizations that serve as the gatekeepers to billions of dollars in federal student aid.
The changes, being made through executive action, will also set down some of the Obama administration’s priorities for accreditation as Congress considers reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. Those include a streamlined accreditation process for some colleges and a more uniform set of definitions and data that accreditors report to the federal agency.
The Education Department also wants to make public the documents related to final accreditation decisions regarding individual colleges, and to require that some high-risk colleges have reserve funds to cover the costs for students to finish their academic programs if the institutions were to close suddenly.
The measures are meant to more closely link accreditors to the outcomes of the institutions that they oversee and to provide more information to the public about how well the colleges under each accreditor perform.
The department, too, says it will take into account student performance as it considers renewing accrediting agencies’ federal recognition.
But the new requirements are limited, requiring information that is largely available to the public, though not consolidated in the way that the department now plans to present it.
"The only thing that I see significant here is that the department has provided us with some very good data," said Michael B. Poliakoff, vice president for policy at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. "What accreditation needs is a reinvention, not a series of tweaks."
Federal officials would like to eliminate a legal provision that bars the government from setting specific performance standards for accreditors to enforce, the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday. Mr. Duncan called on Congress to undo that prohibition as lawmakers consider the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
But Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who is leading the reauthorization effort as chairman of the Senate education committee, rejected Mr. Duncan’s recommendation.
"It is good to see the secretary focusing on making accrediting agencies effective gatekeepers for billions of dollars of student aid," Senator Alexander said in a written statement. "It’s not a good idea to repeal the law prohibiting the secretary from defining student achievement at America’s colleges and universities."
The department’s announcements followed the intense criticism of accreditation that followed the failure last year of Corinthian Colleges Inc., which shut down its remaining 28 campuses in April and left some 16,000 students wondering if they would be able to finish their programs. In response, federal lawmakers have lambasted the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, the federally recognized agency that accredited the now-bankrupt company’s colleges.
But dissatisfaction with accreditation is hardly new. The Obama administration has consistently taken a hard line on accreditation, and in his 2013 State of the Union address the president even proposed the creation of a new accountability system, which ultimately led to the new College Scorecard site the White House rolled out this fall.
With the scandal over Corinthian’s collapse still fresh, however, Mr. Duncan has called for improved transparency and accountability in accreditation.
"As it stands, where Congress has asked for little accountability, accreditors have provided little," Mr. Duncan said on Thursday, echoing a speech he made in July. "For the most part, accreditation organizations are the watchdogs that don’t bark."
Under the new measures announced on Friday, the department will publish the varying standards that accreditors use to determine student achievement, underscoring the wide latitude that some of the organizations give to the colleges they oversee.
The department will also now publish the letters that accreditors send to institutions explaining the reasons for putting them on probation — a penalty usually two steps short of removing accreditation.
While much of that information is already available to the public, the department is now making it accessible on a single website.
On that website, the department is also providing a list of colleges for each accreditor and reporting key outcome measures for each institution, such as student retention and graduation rates, the average net price students pay to attend, and the median debt loads students carry — information now available on the College Scorecard site.
A news release from the department says it will also pay more attention to the performance and outcomes of the institutions under each accreditor when the accreditor is being considered for renewal of its federal recognition.
Will Congress Act?
Accrediting agencies had mixed reactions to the department’s announcements, but they acknowledged that changes are likely, in both policy and practice.
"The increasing push by federal officials to tie accreditation status more closely and explicitly to evidence of institutional performance is pressuring accreditation to move in that direction," said Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, an organization of colleges and accreditors. "One way or the other, I think, the accreditors’ role is changing, in ways that take us away from some of our current practices."
A written statement from the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools said the organization supports "improved coordination between accreditors, the Department of Education, and state oversight agencies." But, like Senator Alexander, the council said it does not want the department to set specific standards for academic quality.
What the senator is considering has only been hinted at in a white paper released by his staff in March. That paper calls for breaking down the geographic boundaries of the seven regional accrediting agencies, allowing an expedited review for institutions that meet certain standards, and stripping away the long list of accreditation requirements that do not directly relate to educational quality but that are mandated by federal law and regulation.
But the accreditation process has been through this type of scrutiny before, and despite the widespread calls for change, it has usually survived intact.
Amy Laitinen, director for higher education at the nonpartisan think tank New America, said that the department had gone as far as it could in changing the accreditation system and that she was not hopeful for any significant changes from Congress.
"Congress has shown a complete unwillingness to require anything meaningful of accreditors," Ms. Laitinen said in an email. "For all of Senator Alexander’s talk about accreditation reform, his voting record shows that he’s willing to put institutional and accreditor interests above those of students."
Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.