- Congress’ 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act failed to improve student outcomes at colleges accredited by one prominent agency studied by researchers, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
- That’s according to a new report from Ithaka S+R, an educational research nonprofit. Researchers found no evidence that colleges’ full-time credential production, median student debt or one-year repayment rates improved after the accreditor put policy changes in place in response to the HEA reauthorization.
- A 2016 dashboard project allowing accreditors to be compared on key student outcomes metrics showed slightly more promise. The report suggests transparency and accountability efforts — including that 2016 project, which was from the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, or NACIQI, and the federal government’s release of College Scorecard data — may relate to improved student outcomes.
Higher ed accreditation is meant to verify colleges’ health, both academically and financially. A set of regional and national accreditors have long served as federal financial aid gatekeepers — without their approval, colleges cannot receive Title IV funding.
But opponents of the current system argue accreditors have no incentive to remove failing institutions, since approved colleges pay membership fees.
Issues with accreditation drew more urgent scrutiny after several institutions, including the for-profit Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute, suddenly collapsed and closed in the mid-2010s, even though they were accredited.
In February, a coalition of higher ed groups called on the U.S. Department of Education to tighten its oversight of accreditors, especially how they handle colleges with poor student outcomes. But the new Ithaka S+R report found that past federal changes haven’t yielded significant results for students.
The relative weakness of the 2008 HEA authorization undercut federal agencies’ ability to intervene, according to James Ward, senior researcher at Ithaka S+R and co-author of the report.
“It didn’t create a lot of strong standards that the department or NACIQI needed to be reviewing accreditors on. It actually says that the Department of Education can’t establish specific standards to evaluate accrediting agencies on,” Ward said. “If we’re not giving the department and NACIQI the bandwidth to oversee accreditors, we’re hamstringing their ability to make sure accreditors are actually ensuring quality.”
Researchers have also raised questions about a lack of consistency in standards among accreditors.
“The patchwork accreditation system results in colleges across the country being held to different quality standards,” the Ithaka S+R researchers said in the new report.
The researchers chose to study colleges accredited by SACSCOC because it had the most extensively available documentation. Most regional accreditors don’t make any historical documents public, they said in their report.
The lack of transparency and record-keeping across accreditors is part of why the project was necessary, according to Ward.
Researchers built their data set from SACSCOC’s past meeting minutes and the Standards of Accreditation it posts on its website. They included factors like the cohort default rates and the number of negative actions the accreditor took against institutions.
It’s difficult to pin down a causal relationship between legislative changes and student outcomes because the accreditor did not immediately put new rules into effect, according to Ward. Congress reauthorized the HEA in 2008. Updates included a requirement that accreditors monitor institutions’ enrollment growth and a set of outlined rules for institutions to have due process. SACSCOC began updating its standards and procedures in 2011.
“Congress will pass a law that goes through negotiated rulemaking. Then there’s another delay before accreditors are actually being held accountable,” Ward said. “That leaves a lot of opportunities for other factors to influence outcomes.”
The changes to SACSCOC’s procedures were finalized before June 2012, when NACIQI reviewed the group. NACIQI regularly reviews accreditors and advises Ed Department leaders on their compliance with federal regulations. The timing of NACIQI’s review complicates how quickly federal policy can affect institutional behaviors, according to the report.
Researchers pulled their SACSCOC sample by studying institutions that the accreditor reviewed from 2012 through 2017. SACSCOC challenged the idea that this period allowed enough time for HEA changes to affect students.
Alexei Matveev, director of training and research at SACSCOC, recommended those interested in tracking student success look at data from 2016 onward. This would allow a cohort sample to have six years to graduate while still entering higher education after the HEA was reauthorized, according to Matveev.
“I think some of the researchers and the policymakers, especially those who are not on campuses, do not necessarily realize it takes time to improve things like default rates,” Matveev said, “I’m not saying that as an excuse for inaction. But especially when the change is made at the federal level, it has trickled down to states and accreditors, then to the institutions.”
Ithaka S+R researchers found how the accrediting agencies responded to federal changes were more important than legislation itself.
Moving forward, the report suggests public accountability as an effective option.
“Shining a spotlight on accreditors who give the stamp of approval to poor performing institutions may do more to immediately improve student outcomes than anything else,” the report said.
SACSCOC supports transparency, and it is open to sharing student outcomes information with interested parties, according to Matveev.
“We have guidelines on how to request assistance and data from us. We’re happy to do it,” Matveev said. “Being transparent is always a good goal.”
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