DIVERSE EDUCATION: Senate Committee Taking Closer Look at Education Accreditation Process

Career College Central Summary:

  • For its most recent hearing on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee delved into accreditation ? what it is and how it might be improved. A number of accrediting bodies in the United States have come under scrutiny in the past few years for their involvement in monitoring at-risk or predatory institutions, according to senators and witnesses at the Wednesday hearing.
  • Accrediting bodies are tasked with monitoring the quality of institutions and assessing whether students are gaining a meaningful education by attending them. When institutions are perceived to be failing in some way or fail to meet the accrediting body’s standards, institutions can be sanctioned and, in some extreme cases, closed or change ownership.
  • Accreditation has been around since the 1800s and started out as a voluntary system to ensure institutional quality. Over time, as more and more of the population attended college, accrediting bodies increasingly became “proxies” for the federal government and gatekeepers of Title IV, or federal financial aid and loans. Without an accreditor’s stamp of approval, institutions are not eligible to make use of federal dollars.
  • Despite their new tasks, their essential function remains much the same as it always was. As a result, hearing witness Dr. George Pruitt, president of Thomas Edison State College and chair of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, said that accrediting agencies are burdened with conflicting expectations. The conflict stems from whether accrediting bodies should be regulating or assessing institutions.
  • Pruitt compared accreditation to regulation in the financial industry, saying that, although superficially their respective functions may seem similar, they differ. “Regulators … prescribe the things that bankers can do,” he said. “Accreditors tend not to prescribe what academics do and cannot do, as long as the results are such that we can demonstrate they have value to the people that support us.”
  • In his prepared remarks, Pruitt said that, despite recent criticism of accreditation, it remains “fundamentally sound.” He said federal regulations and compliance bog down accrediting agencies from performing their original mission of assessing the quality of institutions.
  • A few accrediting bodies have come under scrutiny in the past several years. One notable example of this is the implosion of Corinthian College, Inc. Corinthian was an accredited system of for-profit colleges but has since filed for bankruptcy and sold off its 120 campuses amid allegations of student fraud and deceptive practices.
  • Before and after Corinthian’s collapse, students have come forward to say that the degrees they earned were not recognized by employers, leaving them no better off than they were before they began to attend the college. In fact, many are now burdened with debt because Corinthian is much more expensive than public schools and even some private institutions. The total debt held by students who attended a Corinthian institution in the past five years is $3.5 billion. Ultimately, the end of Corinthian was affected by the Department of Education, but the question remains as to why it was able to retain accreditation in light of its predatory practices.

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