Unfortunately there are many exceptions. Thousands of institutions leave students even worse off than if they hadn’t enrolled in the first place. At nearly 30 percent of colleges, more than half of students earn less than high-school graduates 10 years after enrolling. At hundreds of colleges, more than 70 percent of students earn less than high-school graduates over that same time
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Unfortunately there are many exceptions. Thousands of institutions leave students even worse off than if they hadn’t enrolled in the first place. At nearly 30 percent of colleges, more than half of students earn less than high-school graduates 10 years after enrolling. At hundreds of colleges, more than 70 percent of students earn less than high-school graduates over that same time.
Colleges that serve students so poorly shouldn’t be able to continue operating with impunity, and there is a system in place to make sure they don’t: accreditation. A group of independent regulators is charged with determining the quality of colleges, and only those institutions deemed worthy are given a stamp of approval — and all of the financial benefits that go along with it, specifically the ability for their students to receive federal student aid.
Accreditors regularly approve colleges that have no business operating.
So why are so many institutions able to continue, year after year, to sell a shoddy product to unaware consumers with no repercussions? Simply put: The accreditation system is broken. Accreditors regularly approve colleges that have no business operating. Without major changes in the system, they will continue to do so. While the short-term consequences of these unmerited endorsements are bad — particularly for the students who will probably have little to show for their time in college besides a heavy debt load — the long-term consequences could be devastating. Rubber-stamping inferior institutions devalues a college degree and threatens the entire legitimacy of higher education.
The accreditors themselves must be held accountable — something that’s easier said than done. A recent example shows why.
Several months ago federal recognition of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, or ACCSC, an accreditor of mainly for-profit colleges, was up for renewal. Every five years or so, each accreditor is reviewed by staff members in the U.S. Department of Education and an independent commission, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity. They make separate recommendations of whether an accreditor’s recognition should be renewed, and the deputy under secretary in the Education Department makes the final decision.
ACCSC oversees 370 institutions that receive $2.8 billion in federal student aid every year. In 2020, I conducted an analysis, with publicly available data, on the return on investment that accredited institutions offer their students. It revealed that over a quarter of ACCSC-accredited institutions offer no economic ROI to most of their students, meaning they earned less after attending than someone with no college whatsoever. Even worse, a follow-up study showed 40 percent of ACCSC institutions left the average low-income student unable to meet this basic economic benchmark. ACCSC has been granting accreditation to scores of colleges that are clearly failing their students.
How did the staff members of the Department of Education treat this dereliction of duty? They approved ACCSC with flying colors, stating that it is in full compliance. Which technically it is. The department’s compliance checklist, which is limited in scope by laws and regulations, doesn’t concern itself with whether an accreditor’s institutions are failing students. The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, known as Naciqi, has a little more leverage in this area, and indeed the organization raised concerns that too many ACCSC institutions were leaving students worse off. Even so, it was still encouraged by the Education Department to focus on compliance issues — not outcomes — and, in response, Naciqi recommended a shortened renewal of only three years. The deputy under secretary will now make a final determination of how long ACCSC’s approval should be.
ACCSC isn’t the only dubious accreditor. Data from the Education Department show that 920 accredited institutions — about 20 percent of all accredited institutions — graduate less than two-thirds of their students. Even students who do graduate from an accredited institution sometimes show little to no economic return for their educational investment. At least one-third of the graduates of more than 900 accredited institutions earn less than 150 percent of the federal poverty line, currently around $19,300 per year.
The department’s compliance checklist doesn’t concern itself with whether an accreditor’s institutions are failing students.
If colleges with such poor outcomes continue to get stamps of approval from federally approved accreditors, the perception of postsecondary education as a good investment will diminish. Students and families, who can’t — and shouldn’t — be expected to distinguish between colleges that are worthwhile and those that aren’t, will instead turn against the higher-education system in general. Colleges that are doing right by their students will face the consequences of lax accreditation.
That’s why college leaders should push Congress to make several legislative changes. One is to require a basic threshold that colleges must meet in order to maintain accreditation and access to federal student aid. A good bar would be that most of an institution’s students earn as much as non-collegegoers after they attend. Another needed change would be to give the Department of Education more authority to determine which outcomes are acceptable rather than restrict it to essentially enforce a congressionally imposed compliance checklist.
There is a gap right now between how accreditation should work in theory and how it works in practice. It’s in everyone’s best interest — everyone who is concerned about the future of higher education — to make sure that gap closes, and quickly.