Watchdogs That Don’t Bite

By Dr. Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

“For the most part, accreditation agencies are watchdogs that don’t bite.”

That’s what US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said yesterday regarding higher education accreditation in the United States. The US Department of Education is putting pressure on accreditors to do more about quality in higher education. However, the Department serves mostly as a bully pulpit and itself does not have the necessary teeth of their own on this issue. That stated, they are using data and transparency as their bully strategy. As quoted in this morning, former Occidental College president and current Undersecretary of education, Ted Mitchell, said this: “We’re using the tools of transparency to provide everyone with more information and, quite frankly, to say to accreditors we’re paying attention to this with renewed vigor and that it’s going to matter… That message ought to be clear.”

According to the US Department of Education, there are 7,687 institutions accredited in the United States. Without this accreditation, these institutions cannot access federal student aid funds, including Pell Grants and Stafford Loans. According to the Wall Street Journal, only 18 of these institutions have been stripped of their accreditation since 2000. Let me put that in some perspective: less than one fifth of one percent of all institutions have lost their accreditation over the past 15 years. I find that astonishing.

As an eternal optimist (that may be somewhat overstated), I would like to believe that a majority of our institutions of higher education are outstanding venues for student learning. Over the past 30 years, I have attended (and graduated, to be completely transparent) four of them and visited hundreds more. In this limited experience as an educator and analyst, I can safely say that more than 18 institutions should be on the cut line in terms of accreditation. Put another way, I find it challenging to grasp that only one in 427 institutions lose their accreditation. It seems to buttress Arne Duncan’s contention that these watchdogs don’t bite.

The US Department of Education is using data to make their case and published performance data of the various accreditation groups yesterday. Below is a table I compiled from these data.

Table 1. Descriptive and Outcome Data of US Postsecondary Institutions, by Accreditation Agency (SOURCE: US Department of Education)


The regional accreditors above represent over 3,400 two- and four-year institutions and approximately 70 percent of all postsecondary students in the United States. Working left to right, the average graduation rate (150 percent of time) of these institutions is 41 percent, with the lowest at SACS (37 percent) and the highest at WASC (56 percent). Approximately half (49 percent) of students at these institutions have borrowed via federal loans, with an average median debt of graduates of $20,534 and a 12 percent three-year cohort default rate. Finally, the average earnings of graduates from these institutions 10 years after enrollment is $38,598.

These data in isolation don’t do much for us, other than underscoring the fact that our colleges and universities do not do a great job of getting students through the higher education vortex. The reality is that, beyond accreditation, there is no real accountability for higher education. The US Department of Education tries to extend its reach via Title IV and other levers, but the extent of that reach is limited.

Only a decade ago, Congress created what was known as the “Spelling Commission” to look at the future of higher education. In one of the papers presented to the commission, then-Senior Vice President of Lumina Foundation Bob Dickeson described higher education accreditation as a “crazy-quilt of activities, processes and structures that is fragmented, arcane, more historical than logical, and has outlived its usefulness.” Perhaps more importantly, he said that the current system is simply not “meeting the expectations required for the future.”

In response to the Commission, Judith Eaton, then and still current President of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), said “Why in the face of the success of U.S. higher ed — and accreditation is part of that success — would you want to put together something that cuts at the very features that have created what is good about us?”

Well, the problem with Ms. Eaton’s comment is that the US system of higher education isn’t near as good as most people would like to believe. Do we have the best institutions in the world? Arguably. But is it the best system? Are “all” our institutions really that good? I don’t think so. To me, this is reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom inaugural scene where Jeff Daniels’ character chastises a student who asks why the US is the best country in the world. He responds as such,

Just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know. One of them is: There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labor force and number 4 in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real and defense spending – where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies. Now, none of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are without a doubt a member of the worst period generation period ever period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the f— you’re talking about!…


That’s probably overdoing my analogy, but this is my blog…

Surely it is hard to argue that we need more accountability in higher education. Just sayin’: when 59 percent of entering students at the above institutions don’t graduate with a degree, we have a problem. There are a lot of reasons for the lower graduation rate, including the reality that we have an unbelievably forgiving system of postsecondary education, which comes at great cost to taxpayers and individuals. And that bill has been accumulating for a long, long time. It’s time to do something more rational.

We have to do better. And our accreditation agencies must do better. Accreditation will undoubtedly be the core of accountability for the future. I can’t think of any other measurement system that can single-handedly serve as our accountability measure. So accreditation is here, will be here, and we need it to be better. President Obama has said that he will hold colleges “accountable for cost, value, and quality,” and even though he has less than a year left in office, it is unlikely that the incoming President will move very far from this line of inquiry.

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