New Guidance for Accrediting Agencies Will Strengthen Information Sharing and Transparency

Accrediting agencies’ stamp of approval for colleges and universities serves as both an indicator of quality to students and families and a “gatekeeper” to over $150 billion in federal student aid. But sometimes, the information accreditors provide is confusing to students or insufficient to inform the Department of Education’s oversight functions. When that happens, it can jeopardize the studies and career prospects of students who rely on accreditors’ approval and put taxpayer dollars at risk.

That’s why, in November 2016, the Department published the final version of a guidance letter that clarifies the requirements, terminology, and channels used by accrediting agencies reporting to the Department. As stated in a previous blogpost introducing the draft version of the letter, the guidance is part of our overall efforts to further strengthen the Department’s oversight of the higher education accreditation system by improving information sharing, transparency, accountability and focus on student outcomes.

This guidance letter clarifies the terminology used when accrediting agencies submit information to the Department as mandated by Congress in Sections 487 and 496 of the Higher Education Act, and in the federal regulations at 34 CFR 602. It also provides them with instructions for doing so to ensure the Department’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs (DAPIP) is accurate and comprehensive.

Specifically, the guidance creates standard definitions for the terms accrediting agencies use to describe to the Department the seriousness and implications of actions they’ve taken against institutions and programs. For example, different accrediting agencies use variations of terms – including show cause, probation, and warning – to refer to a broad array of sanctions indicating that an institution is out of compliance with the accreditor’s standards. But students and the Department sometimes have trouble comparing these actions across accrediting agencies. So the guidance establishes the terms and their definitions that the accreditor uses when reporting to the Department. For instance, agencies must report “probation” actions when an institution or program is significantly out of compliance with one or more of the accreditor’s standards, but hasn’t yet lost accreditation because it may come back into compliance.

The guidance also requires accrediting agencies to submit for schools that receive federal financial aid their decision letters that outline the reason for taking actions such as probation, providing the context and details the Department needs for its own oversight and enforcement work. (For non-federal financial aid participating institutions, only a summary is required.) To support the Department’s focus on student outcomes, the guidance also includes a provision that highly encourages accrediting agencies to submit to the Department other actions that relate to academic quality.

To ensure the data we’re receiving from accrediting agencies are accurate, we’ve also built a new online reporting tool for accrediting agencies. The new portal will reduce the risk of human error and increase the speed of information-sharing with the Department and the public. The Department is currently conducting trainings for accreditors to enable them to utilize this collection system effectively.

The Department, federally recognized accrediting agencies, and other stakeholders in the accreditation community share a common interest in protecting students and taxpayers, and in upholding the integrity of the higher education accreditation system. A collaborative process between accreditors and the Department demonstrates the shared interest in providing comprehensive, accurate, and reliable information about oversight actions and other efforts. We look forward to further collaborating and cooperating with all stakeholders to fulfil our obligations to Congress, states, and the public in postsecondary accreditation.

Gail McLarnon is Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Planning and Innovation

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