Watching the Watchdogs: A Look At What Happens When Accreditors Sanction Colleges

By Irene Cruz

A recent report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) looks at inconsistencies in the postsecondary accreditation process. In the study, CAP conducted a detailed review from 2010 through 2015 of key actions taken by 10 of the 12 major institutional accrediting agencies in order to investigate accreditor consistency and transparency. In conducting the study, CAP collected data on the number of times each accreditor placed an institution in a serious sanction status, how long each school remained in that status and what happened to the institution over time. The report suggests that although all accreditors are required to consider the same components, the manner in which each accreditation agency conducts oversight varies significantly in standards, policies and procedures.

Among the report’s key findings:

  • In the period between 2010 to 2015, national and regional accreditors utilized varying systems of sanctions.
    • The national accreditors were more likely to place schools on negative sanctions or withdraw accreditation than the regional accreditors.
    • National accreditors sanctioned 287 institutions (14 percent of the schools they accredit), while regional accreditors sanctioned 125 institutions (4 percent of schools they accredit).
  • The rates at which accreditors withdraw accreditation varies by accreditor. If accreditation is withdrawn from a school, the school is no longer eligible to offer federal financial aid.
    • National accreditors are more likely to withdraw accreditation than regional accreditors.
    • Regional accreditors only withdrew accreditation from 7 schools, while national accreditors withdrew accreditation from 34 institutions (18% of sanctioned schools).
  • Some accreditors use sanctions as long-term monitoring and improvement tools, while others use sanctions on a much shorter timeline.
    • Regional accreditors are more likely to keep schools on a negative status for a longer period of time.
      • Out of the 99 regionally accredited institutions, 94% were still on sanction or worse after six months, and 92% were still on sanction or worse after one year.
      • 31% of the 157 schools sanctioned by national accreditors were still on sanction or worse after six months, and 24% were still on sanction or worse after one year.
  • The report suggests that inconsistencies in how sanctions are applied may weaken the effectiveness of the college oversight system by preventing clear guidance for colleges about expectations and how to improve institutional practice.