College Watchdogs Aren't Watching the Right Things

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To tap into federally backed financial aid like Pell Grants and student loans, colleges must be accredited by one of a number of government-recognized nonprofits that evaluate schools. But a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office says those accreditation groups are paying too much attention to schools’ finances and not enough to the quality of the education they offer, or the value of the degree students walk away with.

The GAO found it’s extremely rare for colleges to lose their accreditation, and when they do, it’s largely because their finances are in bad shape. That, the GAO says, means students may end up taking out loans to attend schools that “do not provide a quality education”—a potential problem for taxpayers, since the federal government hands out more than $136 billion in student aid each year.

From October 2009 through March 2014, accreditation groups disqualified 66 schools, less than 1 percent of all programs. More than 80 percent of those schools were for-profits. About twice as many for-profit colleges were sanctioned for poor financial and administrative capabilities than academic quality, even as there’s been growing attention on whether they properly prepare students for life after college. The GAO also found that “on average, accreditors were no more likely to issue terminations or probations to schools with weaker student outcomes compared to schools with stronger student outcomes”—a catchall for how students do once they leave school. And a closer look at the data reveals that the regional accreditors that oversee nonprofit academic institutions do make these distinctions, but the national accreditors, which oversee the for-profits, don’t.

Part of the problem, the report says, is that the accreditors have different ways they determine academic quality, something that admittedly is not easy. Some accreditors look at hard data like graduation rates. But other use squishier qualitative approaches, “such as whether a school is evaluating success with respect to its mission.”

The Department of Education can do more to police the accreditors, the GAO says, by doing things like using data to compare the actions accreditors take with the outcome of students they oversee. The department generally agreed with the GAO recommendations. If those changes are implemented, maybe schools won’t be given a stamp of approval just for “evaluating success” and instead will need to actually be successful.

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