Center for American Progress

College Accreditation and Federal Aid by the Numbers
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College Accreditation and Federal Aid by the Numbers

Why We Need to Reform the Accreditation System

A by-the-numbers look at why strong accreditation is important for students and taxpayers.

Students rush in to a lecture hall to get a seat for a chemistry class  at the California State University East Bay in Hayward, California. Graduation rates at accredited for-profit colleges and community colleges are low, and studies suggest that students may not be learning much at four-year schools. (AP/Eric Risberg)
Students rush in to a lecture hall to get a seat for a chemistry class at the California State University East Bay in Hayward, California. Graduation rates at accredited for-profit colleges and community colleges are low, and studies suggest that students may not be learning much at four-year schools. (AP/Eric Risberg)

A CAP brief in June by Policy Analyst Julie Morgan argues that the government must keep college accrediting agencies accountable to ensure students get the most out of their institutions and uphold taxpayers’ investments in higher education. Accreditors are essentially gatekeepers between higher education institutions and federal aid since accreditation is a precondition to participating in the financial aid programs contained in Title IV of the Higher Education Act, including the Pell Grant program and the federal student loan program. Morgan recommends that accreditors should create stricter standards for quality assurance and introduce more transparent benchmarks for continuous quality improvement at schools.

The low graduation rates at many accredited community colleges and for-profit colleges, as well as some four-year institutions, are a signal that the quality of the services offered at those institutions may not be up to par. Likewise, the rising student loan default rate at many for-profit institutions may be a sign that students are not getting a sufficient education to pay their debt upon graduation. And some studies suggest that students are not learning very much at many of our nation’s four-year colleges either.

The following numbers illustrate the need to reform accreditation to protect the large U.S. taxpayer investment in higher education and make sure accredited institutions—nonprofit and for-profit alike—are providing a quality education for their students.

Taxpayers’ investment in financial aid

More than $100 billion: The amount of new federal dollars allocated for student lending in 2010.

More than $30 billion: The amount of money invested in Pell Grants, a federal program that provides money to enrolled college students with financial need.

$545 million: The amount in Pell Grants received by students at for-profit colleges in 2010.

Debts and defaults on loans at different types of accredited institutions

16 percent: The percentage of student loans borrowed by students across all institutions of higher education expected to go into default over the life of the loans.

46 percent: The percentage of student loans borrowed by students at two-year for-profit institutions expected to go into default over the life of the loans.

65.7 percent: The percentage of students graduating from four-year institutions with education debt.

$22,900: The average amount of education debt incurred by students graduating from all institutions of higher education in 2011.

6.9 percent: The unemployment rate for college graduates in May 2011, up from 4.2 percent in January.

Enrollment and graduation at accredited institutions of higher learning

1.8 million: The enrollment at for-profit colleges, an increase from 365,000 in the past several years.

22 percent: The graduation rate at four-year for-profit institutions of higher education around the country in 2008.

22 percent: The graduation rate at two-year public institutions of higher education around the country, including community colleges, in 2008.

More than 500,000: The current total enrollment of the University of Phoenix, an accredited for-profit institution of higher learning. This represents the largest student body of any college in the United States, surpassing the State University of New York system in recent years.

9 percent: The graduation rate for four-year bachelor’s degree programs at the University of Phoenix.

69 percent: The withdrawal rate for Kaplan College, another popular accredited system of for-profit higher education.

Study at accredited institutions of higher learning

50 percent: The number of students, from a sample size of more than 2,300 students at a range of colleges and universities, who did not take any course in which they wrote more than 20 pages over the course of one semester.

32 percent: The number of students from the same sample size who did not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading per week, based on data released in 2011.

20 percent: The number of full-time college students in 2003 who report devoting more than 20 hours per week to studying, compared to 44 percent in 1981 and 67 percent in 1961.

13: The average number of hours per week spent on studying by full-time college students in 2003, compared to 20 hours per week in 1981 and 25 hours per week in 1961.

David Liu is an editorial intern at the Center for American Progress.

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