Education Should Strengthen Oversight of Schools and Accreditors

By Betsy Prueter

The U.S. Government Accountability Office recently released a report showing that colleges and universities with lower academic outcomes were no more likely to have been sanctioned by accreditors than those with higher student outcomes. Data was collected over a period of five years (2009-2014) and examined accreditors’ (independent agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education) actions towards schools in their regions. Accreditors are required to have standards in the following areas: 1) student achievement, 2) curricula, 3) faculty, 4) facilities, equipment and supplies, 5) fiscal and administrative capacity, 6) student support services, 7) recruiting and admissions practices, 8) measures of program length and objectives, 9) student complaints and 10) compliance with federal student aid program responsibilities.

Only 8% of schools who did not meet accreditation standards were “punished” by official sanction. Furthermore, accreditation was terminated for 1% of schools (meaning schools no longer had access to federal student aid funds). The report included data from both regional and national accrediting agencies.

Among the report’s key findings:

  • In the period between 2009-2014, 984 sanctions were issued to 621 schools, with 66 schools losing their accreditation.
    • The number of sanctions and terminations steadily declined from 2012 to 2014.
  • Over 80% of terminated schools and 63% of schools placed on probation were for-profit institutions, even though for-profits make up only about 38% of all schools participating in federal student aid programs.
  • Terminated schools had a larger proportion of students receiving Pell grants, fewer part-time students and smaller student bodies.
    • Schools issued “warnings” from their accreditor tended to have more students, a higher proportion of part-time students and a lower proportion of students receiving Pell grants.
  • Accreditors were more likely to list financial reasons rather than academic problems for sanctions.
    • Overall, schools with poor student outcomes were no more likely to have been sanctioned than schools with stronger student outcomes.
    • The one exception to this was low default rates, which almost always lead to sanctions on the part of the accreditor.
    • Regional accreditors were slightly more likely than national accreditors to issue sanction for low academic quality.

The report concludes that given that accreditors have become tasked with ensuring that $136 billion in federal aid is invested wisely, there is little guidance for how the Department of Education should review or respond to accreditor sanction information. Questions remain as to whether accreditor standards are sufficient to ensuring quality as well as whether the Department of Education is effectively tracking the quality of the accrediting process and agencies themselves.