Center for American Progress

RELEASE: With All Eyes on Accreditation, New CAP Report Reveals a Highly Uneven System of Sanctions from College Accreditors
Press Release

RELEASE: With All Eyes on Accreditation, New CAP Report Reveals a Highly Uneven System of Sanctions from College Accreditors

Washington, D.C. — A new report from the Center for American Progress, arriving just before a scheduled meeting of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, or NACIQI, reveals a highly uneven and inconsistent system of sanctions across accrediting agencies when it comes to assessing institutional performance at institutions of higher education. CAP’s detailed review of key actions taken by 10 of the 12 major institutional accrediting agencies from 2010 through 2015 shows that accreditors took drastically different approaches with regard to how frequently they applied negative statuses to colleges and universities, how long a college stayed in a given status, how frequently schools lost accreditation, and even the sanction terms and definitions.

Of the 10 accreditors CAP studied, national accreditors were more likely to place schools on negative sanction and withdraw accreditation than regional accreditors. Regional accreditors, on the other hand, were more likely to keep schools on a negative status for a much longer period of time. Such inconsistencies allow accreditors to treat schools differently–meaning that students’ protection and schools’ access to federal aid can depend on the accreditor selected to oversee the school.

“The sanctions that accrediting agencies levy are an important tool to communicate to institutions, the public, and students when a college is underperforming. Yet unevenness and inconsistency in standards, practice, language, and transparency across agencies weaken the public effectiveness of sanctions. Accreditors need clearer, common rules of the road about sanction terminology, definitions, and use,” said Antoinette Flores, a Policy Analyst on CAP’s Postsecondary Education Policy team.

CAP’s analysis finds that national accreditors in the study were much more likely to sanction institutions that they oversee: For the period studied, national accreditors sanctioned 287 institutions as a whole, or 14 percent of the schools they accredit. Regional accreditors, on the other hand, sanctioned 125 institutions, or 4 percent of schools, a rate that is noteworthy because the regionals studied oversee more schools.

Sanction rates among regional and national accreditors vary and do not appear to be connected to the overall size of the accreditor, the CAP report shows. For example, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, the largest national accreditor—and the accreditor for the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges—sanctioned 16 percent of schools, while the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education & Training, the smallest, sanctioned 50 percent of the schools it oversees. Similarly, among regional accreditors, the Higher Learning Commission, the largest accreditor in the country, sanctioned only 2 percent of schools, while the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, the smallest accreditor, sanctioned 18 percent of schools.

CAP’s report also shows that national agencies are more likely to withdraw accreditation—the most serious action available to accreditors, since it removes a school’s ability to access federal financial aid—for institutions on sanction. The higher sanction and withdrawal rate at national accreditors vs. regional accreditors may reflect the fact that national agencies oversee colleges that are already more likely to run into trouble, such as for-profit institutions.

Regional accreditors, however, keep institutions on sanction for a longer period of time, CAP’s report shows. Of the institutions sanctioned by regional accreditors, 94 percent were still on sanction or withdrawn after six months, and 92 percent were still on sanction or withdrawn after one year. In contrast, only 31 percent of the schools sanctioned by national accreditors were still on sanction at six months, and 24 percent were still on sanction or withdrawn after one year. The swift resolution of sanctions by national accreditors is particularly concerning, since it suggests that schools may be given an all clear so quickly that substantial improvement is unrealistic.

CAP’s report offers recommendations for fixing the accreditation sanctioning process by introducing greater consistency and clarity. The recommendations include:

  • Standardizing accreditor sanction terminology
  • Creating minimum time frames for which institutions must stay on a given sanction
  • Requiring reporting for all sanctions, along with the reason for their enactment
  • Requiring reporting when sanctions are removed
  • Informing the public and consumers of sanctions
  • Creating a searchable database of accrediting decisions

Click here to read “Watching the Watchdogs: A Look at What Happens When Accreditors Sanction Colleges” by Antoinette Flores.

For more information on this topic or to speak with an expert, contact Allison Preiss at apreiss@americanprogress.org or 202.478.6331.