Education Dept. Warns of More Scrutiny for Accreditors

The U.S. Department of Education is, once again, weighing in on accreditation, expanding some flexibility in the accreditation process but also warning of more scrutiny for accrediting agencies.

In an 11-page “Dear Colleague” letter released on Friday, the department lays out some changes in how it expects accreditors to do their jobs and how they will be considered for federal recognition, which is required for them to serve as gatekeepers for federal student aid. Colleges must be accredited by a federally recognized accreditor in order for their students to be eligible for such aid.

In particular, the letter says, accreditors should emphasize standards that consider how students are performing in areas such as graduation rates, retention rates, and job placements, depending on the type of college and its mission. Under existing law and regulation, the department writes, an accreditor can “focus its resources on institutions with higher risk due to poor performance, size, volume of student aid, or other factors.”

At the same time, the department will now be asking about those outcomes when it considers whether an accreditor is fulfilling its duty to the federal government. The department may ask an accrediting agency to explain why it uses different standards than a similar agency does, or why student outcomes at the colleges it accredits are lower than the outcomes at colleges overseen by similar accreditors.

For example, the letter says, “Accreditor X may be asked to explain how it can be effective given that it does not consider retention rates when its peers believe that retention is an important factor in gauging institutional or programmatic quality.”

In another example, the department says, “Institutions accredited by Agency Y, in the aggregate, show lower levels of student achievement on generally accepted measures of student success … than the schools, in the aggregate, accredited by similar agencies. Accreditor Y may be asked to explain how its standards are effective in terms of the results its schools achieve in the aggregate.”

The new guidance is meant to reduce the bureaucratic burden on some institutions and to encourage accreditors to focus on student achievement at “institutions of particular concern,” says the letter. But the guidance also represents the latest steps in the “major and expanding federal presence in accreditation,” said Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

In fact, the letter follows an executive action by President Obama last November that sets out new requirements for accreditors.

Ms. Eaton has become an outspoken advocate of reform in the accreditation process, calling for accreditors to be more transparent about their work and to hold institutions accountable for student achievement.

But she is also concerned that the best parts of accreditation — peer review, emphasis on institutional mission and autonomy, and preservation of academic freedom — will be lost “while we appear to be in a major restructuring of the relationship between the federal government and accreditation.”

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