Student rates

Federal action has failed accreditors to improve student outcomes, research finds

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Diving brief:

  • Congress’s 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act failed to improve student outcomes at accredited colleges by a leading agency studied by researchers, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
  • It depends a new report of Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit educational research organization. The researchers found no evidence that full-time college degree production, median student debt, or one-year repayment rates improved after the accreditor implemented policy changes in response. to the reauthorization of the HEA.
  • A 2016 draft dashboard allowing accreditors to be benchmarked on key student outcome indicators has shown a little more promise. The report suggests that transparency and accountability efforts — including this 2016 draft, which originated from the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, or NACIQI, and the federal government’s release of dashboard data colleges – could be linked to improved student outcomes.

Overview of the dive:

Higher education accreditation aims to verify the health of colleges, both academically and financially. A collection of regional and national accreditors have long served as gatekeepers to federal financial aid—without their approval, colleges cannot receive Title IV funding.

But opponents of the current system argue that accreditors have no incentive to remove failing institutions, since accredited colleges pay membership fees.

Accreditation issues have come under more urgent scrutiny after several institutions, including the for-profit body 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 education groups called on the US Department of Education to strengthen its oversight of accreditors, particularly how they treat colleges with poor student outcomes. But the new Ithaka S+R report found that past federal changes haven’t yielded meaningful results for students.

The relative weakness of the 2008 HEA clearance undermined federal agencies’ ability to respond, according to James Ward, senior researcher at Ithaka S+R and co-author of the report.

“It didn’t create a lot of solid standards against which the department or the NACIQI had to review accreditors. It actually says the Department of Education can’t set specific standards to evaluate accrediting agencies,” Ward said. “If we don’t give the department and NACIQI the bandwidth to oversee accreditors, we limit their ability to ensure that accreditors actually deliver quality.”

The researchers also raised questions about the lack of uniformity of standards among accreditors.

“The patchwork accreditation system requires colleges across the country to meet different quality standards,” the Ithaka S+R researchers said in the new report.

The researchers chose to study SACSCOC-accredited colleges because they had the most widely available documentation. Most regional accreditors do not make any historical documents public, they said in their report.

The lack of transparency and record keeping between accreditors is part of the reason the project was necessary, according to Ward.

The researchers built their dataset from the minutes of previous SACSCOC meetings and the accreditation standards it publishes on its website. They included factors such as cohort default rates and the number of negative actions taken by the accreditor against institutions.

It is difficult to establish a causal relationship between legislative changes and student outcomes because the accreditor did not immediately enforce the new rules, according to Ward. Congress reauthorized the HEA in 2008. The updates included a requirement that accreditors monitor institutional 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 legislation that goes through negotiated regulation. Then there’s another delay before accreditors are actually held accountable,” Ward said. “That leaves a lot of opportunities for other factors to influence the results.”

Changes to SACSCOC procedures were finalized before June 2012, when the NACIQI reviewed the group. NACIQI regularly reviews accreditors and advises Ed Department officials on their compliance with federal regulations. The timing of the NACIQI review complicates how quickly federal policy can affect institutional behaviors, according to the report.

The researchers drew their sample from SACSCOC by studying the institutions the accreditor reviewed from 2012 to 2017. SACSCOC challenged the idea that this period allowed enough time for HEA changes to affect students.

Alexei Matveev, director of education and research at SACSCOC, recommended those interested in tracking student achievement check out data from 2016. This would allow a cohort sample to be six years old to get his degree while continuing to enter higher education after the reauthorization of the HEA, according to Matveev.

“I think some researchers and policy makers, especially those off campus, don’t necessarily realize that it takes time to improve things like default rates,” Matveev said, “I’m not saying this as an excuse for inaction. But especially when change is made at the federal level, it has trickled down to states and accreditors, and then institutions.”

Ithaka S+R researchers found that the accrediting agencies’ response to federal changes was more important than the legislation itself.

Moving forward, the report suggests that public accountability is an effective option.

“Shining the spotlight on accreditors that give low-performing institutions the stamp of approval may do more to immediately improve student outcomes than anything else,” the report says.

SACSCOC supports transparency and is open to sharing information about student achievement with interested parties, according to Matveev.

“We have guidelines on how to ask each other for help and data. We’re happy to do that,” Matveev said. “Being transparent is always a good goal.”