The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama administration cracks down on college accreditors

College students might now be able to get more information about the agencies that accredit U.S. schools. (iStock).

The political scrutiny intensified for accreditation agencies Friday with the Obama administration announcing a series of executive actions to reform the gatekeepers that stand between colleges and billions of dollars in federal financial aid.

The implosion of for-profit giant Corinthian Colleges exposed cracks in the accreditation system that have left the sector open to endless criticism. The company, which ran Everest, Heald College and WyoTech schools, retained its accreditation even as the government cut off its access to federal student loans and grants for falsifying job placement and graduation rates. Corinthian for years faced government lawsuits and investigations that accused it of lying to students and committing fraud, yet accreditors stood behind the school.

“Institutions must be held accountable when they take student, family and taxpayer dollars, but fail to deliver a quality education, so should states and accreditors who are responsible to oversee them under the law,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a conference call with reporters. “For the most part, accreditation agencies are watchdogs that don’t bite.”

On Friday, the Education Department said it will publish information about schools placed on probation by accreditors and post standards used to judge institutions. It will list student outcomes, like graduation rates and loan defaults, by accreditor and encourage the agencies to consider poor outcomes in the approval process. The department also has revamped its Web site to give people easier access to information about the accreditation status of schools.

“The increasing push by federal officials to tie accreditation status more closely and explicitly to evidence of institutional performance is pressuring accreditation to move in that direction,” said Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, a trade group. “One way or the other, the accreditors’ role is changing, in ways that take us away from some of our current practices.”

The government depends on private-sector accreditors to be the stewards of federal financial aid, the lifeblood of colleges and universities. Accreditors are supposed to conduct in-depth investigations of colleges’ facilities, retention rates and teaching quality to ensure taxpayer money is going to quality colleges. But there is no uniformity in the way they decide who enters and exits federal student aid programs, leading to a system that is at best subjective in the way it assesses quality.

Agencies set their own standards, which are reviewed by an advisory board at the Education Department for access to financial aid funds, yet the department has no say in how accreditors do their job. Schools need the blessing of a state agency and the department to gain access to federal funds, but accreditors can derail their chances. Critics say that because so much is at stake, accreditors give schools in trouble endless opportunities to fix their problems. And with the schools they rate funding the agencies through fees, some say there is a conflict of interest.

The administration’s action essentially centralizes and streamlines a lot of information that is already public, but education advocates are more interested in public access to individual accreditation reports.

“Issues like Corinthian suggest that the problem is not knowing more about the penalty actions taken, but what was missed or actually found during the review,” said Ben Miller, senior director for post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “We need transparency into accreditation findings, not just the outcomes.”

[What staggering loan defaults at for-profit schools say about accreditors]

Department officials said they would explore posting additional information.

It would take an act of Congress to give the department broader authority over accreditation agencies. The department is asking lawmakers for some leeway to set and enforce guidelines for the financial gatekeepers. Despite bipartisan consensus that some level of reform is needed, Republicans are reluctant to give the department any more power.

“It’s not a good idea to repeal the law prohibiting the Secretary from defining student achievement at America’s colleges and universities,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “Eighty-one senators voted in July to get the federal government out of the business of setting standards in elementary and secondary education — and any proposal to define academic standards from Washington for our country’s 6,000 colleges and universities is equally misguided.”

[A fight is brewing in Washington over college accreditors]

Duncan accused Congress of doing very little to hold accreditors accountable. Even without legislative action, the Education Secretary has the authority to strip an accreditor of the power to grant access to federal funds by deciding not to recognize the agency. Each agency must be reviewed regularly to ensure they are doing their job.

The department, for example, is preparing a routine review of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, the agency that oversaw Corinthian.

Policymakers have come down on the council for renewing two of Corinthian’s campuses and authorizing a new one a few months before the department forced the company to close or sell its 120 locations. Taxpayers could now be forced to pick up the tab for billions of dollars in loans amassed by former Corinthian students.

The council’s executive director, Albert Gray, has insisted that his agency found no evidence the college lied to its students or committed fraud. In an interview with The Washington Post in September, he pointed out that many of the former Corinthian schools under his care were sold to ECMC Group in a $24 million deal blessed by the department. Gray said the majority of students enrolled at Everest have been able to continue their education, and the council is visiting all of the schools to make sure they live up to its standards.

[How dozens of failing for-profit schools found an unlikely savior: a debt collectors.]

In response to Friday’s announcement, Gray issued a statement saying the council agrees that “a more transparent form of reporting and governance of higher education would affirm the faith consumers place in the oversight of post-secondary education in the U.S.”

Gray also made clear, however, that the agency “objects to the call for Congress to allow the Department of Education to establish standards for student achievement and academic quality by repealing explicit prohibitions to the contrary in the Higher Education Act.”