The Accreditation Reform Act of 2020

A Path Toward a More Equitable and High-Quality Higher Education System

College graduates in Long Beach, California, wait their turn to walk the stage, May 2019.

Too few students today have access to a quality, high-return college education, particularly if they come from historically marginalized communities. A grave student debt problem, persistent disparate outcomes by race and income, and bad institutional actors who prey on society’s most vulnerable populations to make a profit are just a few of the urgent concerns.

Now, a new bill, the Accreditation Reform Act of 2020, aims to address some of these problems by targeting an unreliable part of the higher education system: the U.S. Department of Education’s oversight of accreditation agencies. For decades, the federal government has relied on accreditation agencies, independent organizations made up of the colleges they oversee, to ensure that colleges meet quality standards before students take on federal aid to attend. However, accreditors are not solely to blame for low-quality programs frequently enrolling students unchecked. A recent report from the Center for American Progress found that these agencies receive very little scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Education—even when the colleges they oversee have a poor track record. This is a serious failing given the harm students face, the ongoing equity gaps in college outcomes, and the $120 billion the United States spends each year on financial aid.

The Accreditation Reform Act, introduced last week by lead sponsor Rep. Lori Trahan (D-MA) and co-sponsors Reps. Madeleine Dean (D-PA) and Jahana Hayes (D-CT), would strengthen the guardrails protecting students across the higher education system and hold accreditors accountable when they fail to conduct their oversight duties. It would also increase transparency and improve the oversight system by shifting accreditor federal recognition reviews to a more investigative process, rather than one that’s compliance driven. These changes are particularly crucial right now, as many accreditation agencies are scheduled to resubmit their petitions to gain federal recognition in order to comply with regulatory changes going into effect in July 2020.

Here are four ways the Accreditation Reform Act would help remedy these issues.

1.  Require the Education Department to conduct reviews that are more investigative and evidence-informed

Rep. Trahan’s bill requires the Education Department to review additional data and information in the federal recognition process beyond what is submitted by accreditors, such as student achievement data and records of institutions that fail to meet financial responsibility requirements under federal law.

This is an important change, because the reviews under the current recognition process are narrowly focused and lack substantive evidence. The Education Department relies primarily on limited evidence provided by accreditors instead of considering other information it can access. The department looks to determine if an agency has a standard and, if so, whether the agency has documentation providing that is has implemented that standard. Yet, the Education Department does not necessarily address whether the standard or implementation has been effective in ensuring and improving quality. For example, of the 14 main institutional accreditation agencies, only three were marked noncompliant with at least one criterion in their most recent cycle of review—two of which were marked for lack of documentation such as missing resumes for members of the appeals board—while the other 11 agencies were marked fully compliant with all criteria.

2.  Enforce the system of checks and balances by strengthening the role of NACIQI

The bill would also empower the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), a formal independent and bipartisan advisory body to the Education Department on accreditation matters, to participate more fully in federal recognition reviews of accreditation agencies. Currently, the Education Department can supersede NACIQI’s recommendations, and any information NACIQI uses in its own evaluations is not necessarily used by the Education Department. Under the Accreditation Reform Act, NACIQI would have the authority to request specific information and documents from agencies under review and make recommendations on whether to recognize an agency. This would help guard against the Education Department becoming influenced by the agencies it oversees and uphold NACIQI’s authority as a check-and-balance entity.

3.  Increase transparency

The bill would also require the Education Department to make any accreditation agency petitions for recognition and related final documents publicly available and subject to public comment. These documents include a record of investigations, lawsuits, or settlements conducted by a federal or state authority as well as aggregate outcome data for the accredited institutions. Increased transparency would allow the public to hold the department accountable for its failure to conduct adequate oversight.

4.  Encourage greater use of the Education Department’s authority to limit recognition or review institutions

The bill would require the education secretary to create regulations that provide procedures for limitations on the recognition of accreditation agencies. The Education Department currently has authority to limit the recognition of accreditation agencies, but it rarely uses this policy lever. In fact, the department currently treats agencies that pose a substantial risk to students the same as those with minor deficiencies. Regulations that outline limiting recognitions would help the Education Department use the oversight tools at its disposal.

Conclusion

Disproportionate academic and life outcomes for low-income, Black, and Latinx students in higher education are not a function of individual performance or ability but rather the centuries-old legacy of slavery, discrimination, and racial caste system in this country. This legacy, compounded with the diminishing purchasing power of federal grant aid and the disproportionate impact of state budget cuts on students of color in college, has resulted in a tiered system of quality with have and have-nots. Moreover, historically marginalized students continue to be targeted by predatory for-profit colleges—and the gatekeepers that operate and authorize this unjust system continue to go unchecked.   

Accreditation is a critical component of other equity efforts to ensure that the most marginalized communities have the educational opportunities to thrive. But setting the groundwork to conduct adequate oversight of the agencies tasked as gatekeepers is critical to advancing equity and quality in higher education.

Rep. Trahan’s stand-alone bill would amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 and bring the law closer to ensuring economic mobility for all people regardless of race, gender, class, religion, or background. It would also contribute to efforts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act in Congress. These necessary reforms come at a critical time as the Trump administration has gutted regulations on accreditation and loosened the rules on the expectations of these gatekeepers. Students and taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for accreditation agencies’ failure to hold for-profit colleges and other bad actors accountable.

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