4 Ways to Improve Proposed Higher Standards for College Accreditation

Two college students study on their laptops in a university library in Baltimore, Maryland, January 2013.

Last month, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) sought feedback on proposed standards that would raise the bar for college oversight agencies. These agencies, known as accreditation agencies, serve as the gatekeepers to more than $130 billion in federal student grants and loans that flow to more than 6,000 colleges and universities each year. Yet they have been widely criticized as the “watchdogs that don’t bark” due to their failures to hold problematic colleges accountable. As a national voice for accreditation and quality assurance, and the only entity aside from the U.S. Department of Education that formally recognizes accrediting agencies, CHEA’s role in creating higher standards will be critical to improving quality in higher education.

CHEA recognition of accreditation agencies matters for the colleges they oversee and in ways that are not always apparent to the public. Colleges approved by CHEA-recognized accreditation agencies often have the ability to more easily transfer credits between colleges, and they can factor into the decisions of state authorities, specialized accreditation agencies, licensing boards required for employment, hiring managers, and—to a certain extent—even institutions abroad. When an accreditor fails to adequately oversee a college, however, CHEA recognition can give a false sense of prestige to both the accreditor and the colleges it oversees. Given this significance, strong standards are imperative to ensuring quality in higher education.

Last week, the Center for American Progress submitted public comments on CHEA’s proposed changes. While the council’s new standards are a significant improvement upon existing ones, they can be strengthened in several ways. Below are four important recommendations for furthering quality assurance in higher education.*

1. Deferral of action on recognition

Limiting recognition decisions to only one deferral is a welcome change, without which CHEA has been able to continuously punt on decisions and enable troubled accrediting agencies to maintain recognition when they may not meet CHEA standards. As part of this change, CHEA should limit agencies that have already been deferred in their current recognition cycle from any additional deferrals, pending a decision from the council’s board. CHEA should no longer delay; it should rule quickly on a decision determining whether the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) and any other outstanding agencies meet CHEA standards.

2. Student achievement

CHEA’s proposed changes call for putting student well-being—both in and beyond school—at the center of accreditation judgements, using reliable data and external verification of data. Furthermore, the changes specify that effective performance includes evidence of whether students complete their courses, graduate, and have success after school. CAP has long agreed that how students fare should be at the center of accrediting agencies’ decision-making. In its revised standards for accrediting agencies, CHEA should clearly state that accreditor decisions should be based primarily on student achievement, use reliable data, and include evidence of completion and success—which is currently only mentioned in the background section of the proposed changes.

Additionally, CHEA should require that accrediting agencies have clear performance benchmarks. If agencies are to base accrediting decisions primarily on student achievement, they cannot take timely action against underperforming institutions without establishing clear performance benchmarks that define what constitutes an acceptable level of performance. Furthermore, CHEA should require that accrediting agencies include equity as a measure of student achievement and data collection. Lastly, in order to ensure colleges are serving all students well, agencies should ensure that any reliable data they collect are disaggregated by student demographics, such as race and ethnicity, income, and gender.

3. Transparency

It is important that the proposed changes establish standards requiring accrediting agencies to be transparent about their decisions and the reasons why actions are taken. Students and the public should not be kept in the dark when a college or program is not performing up to standard. Therefore, CHEA should set standard terms for actions taken. Clear terms and definitions could help students and the public understand the seriousness and implications of an action.

To this end, the proposed standards should require that institutions and programs of CHEA-recognized agencies publicly disclose their accreditation status and any actions against it, so that current and prospective students are not blindsided by institutional shortcomings such as financial instability or poor student outcomes. CHEA should be more transparent about its recognition procedures, open public comment periods on agencies up for review, provide reasons for its own actions, and post alerts when it makes a decision.

4. Accountability and enforcement

CAP commended CHEA for its focus on accountability and performance, specifically highlighting the new requirement that accreditor standards provide a procedure for the agency to take timely action in order to prevent underperforming institutions from achieving or maintaining accredited status. As mentioned above, CHEA should require agencies to have standards defining acceptable performance—particularly on student achievement. It cannot know that an agency is taking action on underperforming institutions unless that agency first defines acceptable performance.

Additionally, CHEA should require agencies to have standards on the specific actions they will take when there is evidence an institution has misrepresented itself to students or when there are state or federal investigations or lawsuits against an institution. CHEA should add to its definition of deficient performance requiring review by the council’s board any evidence that an institution has misrepresented itself to students, as well as the presence of state or federal investigations or lawsuits.

Conclusion

Accreditation is an important quality control that provides a safeguard for the nation’s students and the taxpayers’ investment in federal student aid programs. Strong standards for college accreditors and the colleges they oversee are essential to improving college quality and oversight. Changes that focus on student success, transparency, and accountability will help bring about needed change in accreditation.

Antoinette Flores is an associate director for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress. 

*Author’s note: CAP’s full comment can be found here.