The federal government distributes over $100 billion in grants and loans to college students every year, and it relies on outside accreditors to determine which colleges and universities should be eligible for that funding. But new research questions whether accreditors are up to the task of ensuring that students and taxpayers see a return on their investment.
In a study of nearly 32,000 actions taken by accreditors between 2012 and 2021, Stig Leschly and Yazmin Guzmin of College101 find that less than 3 percent of these actions had anything to do with “inadequate student outcomes or low-quality academic programming.” (Disclosure: I once worked for College101 as a paid consultant.)
Moreover, the authors find that colleges with worse student outcomes along objectively measurable dimensions such as loan defaults or graduation rates were no more likely to be sanctioned for poor quality. Among 1,146 colleges with a graduation rate below 40 percent, just 83 were subject to a quality-related disciplinary action between 2012 and 2021. Schools which rarely face consequences for their outcomes see little pressure to improve.
Moreover, most colleges which did receive an outcomes-related sanction were small certificate-granting institutions, especially beauty schools. This sector of higher education certainly has its problems, but it hardly has a monopoly on issues of low quality.
Large public and private nonprofit universities were even more rarely targeted for their outcomes. My analysis of return on investment in higher education shows that 24 percent of bachelor’s degree programs at public institutions and 30 percent at private nonprofit schools leave their students worse off financially. Yet accreditors largely shrug at these issues.
To be fair, the accreditation system was never designed as the policeman of higher education. Accreditors began as membership associations among colleges and universities before federal student aid programs existed. It was only later, when the federal government assumed a major role in funding higher education, that accreditors stepped into their current position as the gatekeepers of taxpayer funding.
But sanctioning or even terminating a member institution for poor student outcomes is an alien task to accreditors. Most accreditation commissions are stacked with representatives of the very colleges they oversee. That might be a useful way to share best practices and advocate for common interests, but it’s hardly conducive to impartial enforcement of basic student outcomes standards.
College101’s findings reveal, sadly, that accreditors are inadequate to the task of ensuring that the federal government only funds programs that provide an economic return for students. Instead of relying on accreditors to ensure quality, Congress should develop a new, outcomes-based system of accountability for institutions dependent on federal funding. Schools that cannot meet a basic level of quality should be penalized regardless of what their accreditor says. Only such an independent system of accountability will guarantee that higher education fulfills its promise of economic mobility for students.