Strengthening Accreditation’s Focus on Outcomes

America is home to the best colleges and universities in the world. These institutions provide students with quality degrees and certificates that prepare them for a good career, a good salary, and full participation in their community and our democracy. But there are still institutions that fail to offer hard-working students a quality education. These schools over-promise and under-deliver, leaving students without the education and skills for success in the job market and in life.

To ensure all Americans have the opportunity to succeed in higher education and that federal investments to help students and families pay for college are well spent, we need the federal government, states, and accrediting agencies all to step up and fulfill the critical role each plays in ensuring the quality of colleges and universities.

For more than half a century, the accreditation process has sought to help colleges and programs set standards and continuously improve the education they provide. And it is one stamp of approval the Department requires—an indicator that is intended to ensure a school offers a solid investment of public dollars—before an institution is eligible to receive federal student aid.

But while this system is meant to focus our higher education field on quality, it is all too clear that we all must do more to address substandard and underperforming institutions, variations in quality and student outcomes, and the challenges facing today’s more diverse group of students. This includes our accreditors.

Students and families trust that accreditation indicates that a school or program will offer them a worthwhile education that prepares graduates for work and life—in other words, positive outcomes for students. Accreditors’ evaluations must increasingly put a premium on student outcomes. We do not intend to impose specific standards on institutions, but want to ensure that accreditors establish and enforce strong and meaningful outcome standards, evaluated by the Department, that effectively address educational quality, including student achievement. Agencies need to do more than certify that institutions make quality offerings available; they must gauge the extent to which the institutions actually help more students achieve their goals. And because of our belief in the importance of equal opportunity to learn and achieve, that means strong outcomes for all students, not just some.

The Obama Administration continues to work on shared efforts to update the accreditation process and better protect students and taxpayers. In November 2015, our Department announced a set of executive actions and legislative proposals to improve accreditation and improve transparency and accountability. At that time, Secretary Arne Duncan also invited further recommendations, specifically on improved information-sharing and coordination with accreditors and clearer guidance on the flexibility accreditors have to focus resources on problematic institutions, which we are sharing today.

The Department will undertake additional steps to achieve these goals, including:

  • Meeting more regularly with accreditors to increase their knowledge of Department policies and, where possible, share information on schools of concern.
  • Sharing more information with accreditors about actions the Department plans to take, once we have safeguards in place for sharing sensitive information.
  • Requiring information submitted by accreditors to the Department to be structured to better distinguish where additional action is needed, and categorize key terms and definitions to promote consistency.
  • Requiring—and sharing publicly when possible—more information from accreditors on why institutions were placed on probation, placed on warning, or found out of compliance with one or more of the accrediting agency’s standards.
  • Clarifying the flexibility agencies have to differentiate review processes for institutions, with guidance on specific standards and criteria that accreditors could use to strengthen their focus on outcomes.

The focus on outcomes is essential to increase the rigor of accreditation and to provide the flexibility that can foster the innovation we need in higher education in order to serve all students well. All of us—colleges and universities, accrediting agencies, the Department, states, and the public we serve—share a stake in ensuring quality outcomes for all students.

The actions we’re announcing today represent another important step in this direction. But we can’t do it alone. In November, we announced a suite of legislative proposals that will enable accrediting agencies and the Department to conduct more rigorous, outcome-oriented reviews of institutions, and to take more forceful actions where appropriate. We look forward to working with Congress to complement the measures we have announced with new reforms that provide even stronger support for students and families.

Ted Mitchell