While independent accrediting agencies play an important role in ensuring academic quality, many experts recognize there are challenges within the system's structure that may lead to problems with accreditation oversight, communication, and measuring of academic quality, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The report — released this week — comes at a time when lawmakers and higher education stakeholders continue to question the role of accreditation and how the system could be changed to better hold institutions accountable for the quality of the education they provide to students.
Some accrediting agencies have recently come under fire for problems in their oversight of postsecondary institutions. For example, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) lost its federal recognition largely due to its oversight of the for-profit college chains Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute, both of which closed their doors in recent years and have been the target of complaints from former students claiming they were defrauded by the institutions.
The GAO convened a roundtable of experts to identify both strengths and challenges of the nation's current higher education accreditation system, and to recommend possible solutions and ideas for improvement. Overall, the experts said the nongovernmental structure of the accreditation system is a strength because it "allows for accreditor reviews that are tailored to various school types." But the experts also said that some accreditors' hesitation to revoke accreditation status could be a problem. In a previous report, the GAO found that accreditors typically are no more likely to take action against poor performing institutions than schools with better student outcomes.
The experts said that some accreditors may be hesitant to revoke an institution's accreditation status because it could lead an institution to become ineligible to participate in Title IV programs, and potentially lead to school closure.
"Recent school closures have displaced tens of thousands of students and resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in financial losses for the federal government," the new GAO report said. "Policymakers and other key stakeholders have raised questions about how effectively the U.S. accreditation system ensures academic quality at schools and protects students' and taxpayers' investment in higher education."
The experts also said that problems with oversight could stem from the two "contradictory" roles that accrediting agencies serve.
"Accreditors' dual role—helping schools improve their performance and also making accreditation decisions that can affect schools' access to federal student aid programs—may be difficult to balance and could create tension and potential conflicts of interest," the report said. "Over time, accreditors' role in ensuring academic quality and helping schools improve expanded to include serving as ‘gatekeepers' for federal funds as accreditation became one of the bases for determining schools' eligibility to participate in federal student aid programs."
The roundtable of experts and stakeholders then identified four possible approaches to improve oversight, communication and transparency, using academic quality measures and expanding accrediting options, and changing the structure of the accreditation system.
On oversight, the experts discussed clarifying or redefining the oversight roles and responsibilities for each of the members of the "triad" — the Department of Education (ED), accrediting agencies, and state governments. They also discussed giving accrediting agencies protections from legal action from schools, and removing the prohibition on ED's ability to set and enforce accreditation standards for student achievement.
In particular, giving accreditors protections from legal action "could encourage them to take needed actions against poor performing schools" and "may help to reduce accreditors' hesitation to take adverse actions that could affect schools' eligibility for federal student aid," the report said.
The roundtable also discussed how to improve communication between members of the triad, and how to make accreditation information more transparent to the public. Some ideas to improve communication among triad members included establishing a group that meets regularly, identifying "triggers" that would require triad communication, and "routinely sharing case studies, best practices, and other relevant information among triad members."
To address concerns with academic quality measures, the experts suggested increasing accreditors' focus on student achievement and outcomes, and providing more categories of accreditation "to help differentiate schools' accreditation status and eligibility for federal student aid."
Expanding accreditation options, the experts said, "could help reduce the tension accreditors may experience in helping schools to improve, while making decisions about schools' accreditation status that can impact schools' eligibility for federal student aid."
"For example, this approach may allow schools to remain accredited but receive varying levels of federal student aid while they correct deficiencies identified by their accreditor," the report said.
Finally, the experts discussed four approaches to potentially restructuring the current accreditation system, such as creating an independent authorizer for innovative program providers, or a congressionally chartered accreditation governance entity. The four approaches are described in more detail in the report, but do have common features.
"In all four approaches, new entities would set standards for assessing schools' academic quality and receive federal funding to support their activities and operations," the report said. "By assuming responsibility for setting standards, and by receiving funding from the government rather than schools, the proposed entities could potentially help alleviate some of the challenges roundtable experts identified with the current accreditation system."
Publication Date: 1/25/2018