Education Dept. takes action to improve higher ed accreditation

The Department of Education is trying to improve accountability in higher education accrediting through a series of executive actions announced Friday.

Accreditation is a prerequisite for colleges and universities to offer their students federal financial aid — programs the government contributes $150 billion to annually.

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Accreditors are responsible for ensuring baseline levels of acceptable quality and performance across diverse institutions, degree types and academic programs, but the agency said there’s a need for significant improvement in both the rigor and flexibility of accreditation.

The Department of Education on Friday made public the set of standards students much achieve for schools to maintain their accreditation status and announced plans to publish online the letters schools receive from accreditors when they are put on probation. To do so, accreditors will be forced to submit a copy of each letter to the agency.

In addition to these actions, the department is recommending Congress repeal the statutory ban on its ability to set and enforce expectations regarding student achievement standards in accreditation, force accreditors to request more complete teach-out plans from high-risk institutions, and make all final accreditation documents relating to academic and institutional quality publicly available.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) praised the agency for centralizing accreditation information, but said transparency alone is not enough.

"Hopefully, the department uses the data released today to inform which accreditation agencies it allows to serve as the gatekeepers to federal financial aid,” Ben Miller, CAP’s senior director for postsecondary education, said in a news release.

The other actions announced today should result in greater protections for students and taxpayers. In particular, sharing more information between accreditors and the department should create a stronger feedback loop whereby accreditation actions quickly lead to other oversight activity from the Office of Federal Student Aid.