Better Information on Accreditation

Accreditation’s historic function offers important protection for both students and taxpayers by assuring the quality of our postsecondary educational system. Today, the Department published a draft guidance letter in the Federal Register that, once finalized, will update the protocols for federally recognized accrediting agencies to share with the Department information on the actions the agencies have taken with their institutions and programs.

The draft guidance is part of our broader efforts to improve accreditors’ and the Department’s oversight activities and move toward a new focus on student outcomes and transparency. Since accreditation is a prerequisite for schools’ participation in the federal student aid programs, it plays a “gatekeeping” role in institutional access to the annual $150 billion investment in federal student aid. Accreditors are responsible for ensuring baseline levels of acceptable quality and performance across diverse institutions, degree types, and academic programs.

In the end, students, employers, colleges, and other stakeholders that rely on accreditation information to make important decisions will have better, clearer information. That heightened transparency is critical for everyone. For instance:

  • Students use accreditation information when deciding where to apply and enroll
  • Colleges use accreditation information when assessing transcripts for transfer credit
  • States use accreditation as a quality benchmark in overseeing schools and programs and making determinations for state approval and licensure
  • Employers use accreditation information when hiring new employees and allocating professional development funds
  • Federal agencies count on accreditation information as a reliable heuristic for identifying college and program quality

Based on information submitted by accrediting agencies, the Department makes accreditation information publicly available in the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs. This same information is used to inform the Department’s oversight of accreditors and is listed within our consumer tools like the College Navigator – where accreditation status can be viewed alongside graduation rates, price, and other factors.

Given the critical uses of information on accreditation, we must collectively do all we can to improve the accuracy and usefulness of the information by strengthening the reporting system.

For example, accreditors are required to report their actions on institutions and programs on a timely basis, such as granting or revoking a school’s accreditation status, or putting a program on probation – but they don’t all use the same the terms or definitions. A “probation” decision by one agency may be the same as a “show cause” decision by another. And members of the public may not know what either term means. As a result, it’s difficult to compare apples to apples.

And while accreditors share detailed justifications for their actions with the affected institutions and programs, they do not always volunteer the context to the Department or the public. Consequently, it is often unclear why a particular action was taken, limiting the utility of that information for the Department staff responsible for ensuring institutions are in compliance with the rules of federal financial aid. For example, it would be valuable to know whether an accreditor took a particular action because of an institution’s lack of compliance with the agency’s facilities and equipment standards, or because the institution was found to have systemically weak fiscal and administrative capacity.

Finally, the information is not currently required to be submitted by accreditors to the Department in a consistent format that is easy to read, understand, and act upon. Accrediting agencies’ updates are often received in large compilations that mix positive, negative, and other actions, making it much less actionable.

Clearly, the current reporting and information sharing process can be improved. We hear it from the students, employers, colleges, and other stakeholders who have trouble getting the information they need. We also hear this from accreditors themselves, since they sometimes spend extra time double-checking information they’ve already submitted when the Department isn’t sure how to categorize it.

The draft guidance we published today aims to make reporting to the Department more standardized and usable so everyone benefits. We believe this updated approach will help Department officials who need accurate and complete information for our own institutional oversight work; it will help the students, families, institutions, states, and employers who depend on publicly available accreditation information to make important choices about pursuing higher education and hiring new employees; and it will help accreditors who will have greater confidence in publicly available information about their accredited institutions and programs.

The U.S. Department of Education believes it is important to ensure that the public can have confidence in the current accreditation system. We encourage members of the public to submit feedback before we finalize the guidance; the deadline is June 6, 2016. Your feedback will help us ensure students and other stakeholders have the accreditation information they need, in a way they can use.

Lynn B. Mahaffie is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Planning and Innovation, Delegated the Duties of Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education