- The U.S. Department of Education should go "beyond a box-checking exercise" when assessing whether accreditors are adequately doing their jobs, contends a new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP).
- Antoinette Flores, associate director for postsecondary education at the left-leaning CAP, writes that the Ed Department needs to spend more time assessing accreditors that oversee the largest share of federal funds and conduct more open-ended investigations.
- The report comes as the Ed Department is rewriting the regulations around accreditation that would ease its review of accreditors.
Some accreditors have come under fire after the schools they oversaw left students with unmanageable debt or closed suddenly, leaving those enrolled scrambling to figure where — or if — they should finish their education.
Yet a 2018 audit conducted by the Ed Department's internal watchdog found the agency was not conducting consistent reviews or monitoring accreditors to ensure they were fulfilling their responsibilities, the report noted.
Moreover, some critics of the review process have "derided" it as "mere ‘box-checking," alleging that the Ed Department is more concerned with "arcane compliance rules" than student outcomes, Flores said. "As a result," she wrote, "accrediting agencies may be criticized for minor shortcomings while larger issues go unaddressed."
Several issues hinder the Ed Department's ability to adequately review accreditors, including "limited staffing and a high workload," according to the report.
Even with limited resources, however, the Ed Department doesn't prioritize assessing accreditors that oversee larger shares of federal funds. For example, Flores wrote, the department spends roughly the same amount of time reviewing the National Association of Schools of Dance, whose member institutions receive about $1.5 million in federal funds annually, as the Higher Learning Commission, whose members receive more than $33 billion.
She made several suggestions to improve the process. They include:
Devoting resources to larger and riskier accreditors.
Investigating how accreditors handle low-performing institutions.
Routinely monitoring accreditors.
Placing limits on accreditors when "they represent significant risk."
Giving the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), an independent group that advises the education secretary on accreditation matters, more power during the review process.
CAP isn't the only one raising the alarm on the current accreditation process and the Ed Department's deregulation efforts. When the agency dropped its proposed accreditation rules earlier this summer, critics argued they would weaken the system and potentially harm students, though some stakeholders have favored elements of the proposals.
Among other changes, the new regulations would make it easier for colleges to receive program approval and give accreditors more leeway over taking disciplinary actions against institutions.
Simon Boehme, NACIQI's former student representative, is among those who take issue with the new regulations. "Taken together," he wrote earlier this year, "these changes spell trouble and a serious walking back of the progress NACIQI (and accreditors) have made in recent years."
The public comment period for the proposals closed in mid-July, and the Ed Department has until Nov. 1 to review the comments and release the final rules from them to take effect next year.