New report is the latest in recent attention on accrediting bodies

The U.S. Department of Education has released newly-compiled data dashboards on the performance of accrediting agencies, using measures such as graduation and student loan repayment rates at colleges the agencies oversee. The role of accrediting bodies in higher education has received renewed attention in recent years as tuition rates have increased, the proliferation of for-private providers has expanded, and new innovations in the delivery of a college education have become more common.

Background on accreditation

Accreditation first started as a non-governmental process established by colleges and universities in the early 1900’s to evaluate, assure and improve educational quality in American higher education. This long-standing model was designed to recognize and validate an institution or specific program within an institution (e.g. nursing or business) meets a set of established standards and fosters a commitment to continued excellence. To become accredited, entire colleges and universities, as well as specific academic programs, voluntarily apply to join accrediting agencies.

These agencies develop standards and criteria around what constitutes “quality” higher learning. Peer-reviewers—typically made up of faculty and administrative colleagues from other colleges and universities, and often industry professionals—examine and evaluate the college, university or academic program against the agency’s standards and make recommendations regarding the award of accredited status.

Government’s relationship with accrediting agencies

The Korean War G.I. Bill of 1952 first established the formal relationship between accreditation and the federal government. It specified that veterans could only use their veteran education benefits at colleges and universities accredited by a federally recognized accreditor. This same premise was reinforced in the Higher Education Act of 1965. Institutional eligibility for federal student aid programs such as grants and loans required colleges and universities to be accredited by an accrediting agency recognized by the Secretary of Education. Recognition meant that accreditors were determined to be a “reliable authority as to the quality of education or training offered” by the institutions of higher education or programs they accredit.

In the 1992 Higher Education Act Amendments, Congress defined more specifically the standards accreditors needed when assessing quality at institutions of higher education. Current law outlines 10 minimum standards: student achievement; curriculum; faculty; facilities; fiscal and administrative capacity; student support services; recruiting and admissions practices; measure of program length; student complaints; and compliance with Title IV program responsibility.

Regional accreditation

There are six regional accrediting agencies, each covering a different section of the country. These are the only six bodies that can award regional accreditation, and they’re all recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.  Regional accrediting agencies oversee the vast majority of public and private educational institutions in their specific region. Their primary function is accreditation of post-secondary institutions, though there is a limited amount of accreditation of primary and secondary schools. About 98% of regionally accredited institutions are nonprofit institutions.

All of the USHE institutions are accredited by the Northwest Commission of Colleges and Universities (NWCCU). Five private, non-profit institutions in Utah are also accredited by NWCCU: Brigham Young University, LDS Business College, Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions, Western Governors University and Westminster College.

National accreditation

Nationally accredited schools are predominantly for-profit and offer vocational, career or technical programs. There are dozens of national accrediting bodies, most focus on specific areas of study, primarily in the trades. For example, about two-thirds of nationally accredited institutions are non-degree-granting institutions.

National accreditation is an often-misunderstood term. In contrast to regional accrediting bodies, not all national accrediting bodies are recognized by the US Department of Education. National accreditation has nothing to do with location. Many nationally accredited schools are focused around a single area of study, such as car repair or nurse assisting, and their accreditation standards generally require less rigorous standards than those of regional accreditation.

The role and rigor of national accrediting bodies have been under increased scrutiny by the US government as well as states via their attorneys general. Last week, the US Department of Education’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity recommended that the Secretary of Education revoke the formal recognition of one of the country’s largest national accrediting bodies, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) for lax oversight of several institutions among the 900 institutions it has accredited. There are ten institutions in Utah accredited by ACICS.

Specialized accreditation

In addition to the regional accreditation of an entire university or college, individual certificate and degree programs are often accredited to ensure quality and adherence to industry-defined standards. For example, the American Bar Association for the University of Utah Law School and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education for teacher preparation programs at the University of Utah, Utah State University, Southern Utah University, Weber State University, and Western Governors University. This type of accreditation typically involve standards set by a specific industry.

Policy attention on accreditation

Policy makers have begun to focus more on the role of accreditation in recent years. This is due in large part to the proliferation in nontraditional, predominantly for-profit, institutions.  In addition, potentially innovative delivery methods via “non-college providers of higher education” are garnering criticism towards accrediting bodies for what many see as their slow pace of “keeping up” with the higher education marketplace. For example, Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), nanodegrees in technology subjects, and subscription-based course providers such as StraighterLine offer comparatively more affordable courses but no degrees. Other accessible tools like Khan Academy also offer legitimate learning services. Many new entrants and delivery models are certainly innovative, but there are still many questions around consistency of quality and transparency.

This month, the Center for American Progress released an analysis of 10 regional and national accrediting agencies (not including NWCCU). The report focused on inconsistencies across accrediting bodies in how sanctions are administered.

As online degrees have grown, the traditional geographic boundaries related to regional accreditation have led to what some consider a new hybrid form of state-based accreditation via State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (SARA). This is a voluntary agreement among member states, districts and territories establishing comparable national standards for interstate offerings of postsecondary distance education courses and programs. It is intended to make it easier for students to take online courses offered by postsecondary institutions based in another state. Utah is expected to become the 37th SARA state later this year.

Utah’s own Senator Mike Lee has introduced legislation to move the role of accreditation to the state level to “allow all 50 states and the District of Columbia to develop their own systems of accrediting educational institutions, curricula, apprenticeships, programs, and even individual courses.  All accredited programs would be eligible to receive federal student loan money.”

The role of accrediting bodies is not likely to disappear in the near future. However, their role in regulating quality, how they respond to the increasing pace of change in higher education delivery, and their relationship with the federal and state governments will likely get increased attention from policymakers.

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