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Outcomes-Driven Accreditation

At a time when bipartisan agreements are exceedingly rare, accreditation stands out as an exception: across the political spectrum there’s widespread consensus that the accreditation system should shift its focus on student outcomes. As the gatekeeper to over $150 billion annually in federal student aid, accreditation plays a critical role in protecting students and taxpayers by assuring the quality of our postsecondary educational system. But the past 15 years have been marked by a growing, bipartisan concern about quality assurance, and questions about accreditors' role in a shifting landscape. Calls for reform from policymakers, researchers and advocates have been mounting, fueled by persistent challenges facing our higher education system, such as low graduation rates and inadequate quality of student learning, as well as high-profile events, such as the abrupt collapse of national for-profit college chains Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute.

Bottom Line

Student Defense believes that an outcomes-focused, performance-driven and results-based portfolio approach to strengthening quality assurance will enhance accountability in higher education and help restore public confidence in the accreditation system.

Read Our Report

Putting Students and Taxpayers First: An Outcomes-Driven Approach to Accreditation (PDF)


Accreditation has been a federal issue for nearly 70 years ago, since the 1952 Korean GI Bill included accreditation as an institutional eligibility requirement and required the Commissioner of Education to publish a list “of nationally recognized accrediting agencies and associations which he determines to be reliable authority as to the quality of training offered by an educational institution. Then, in 1965 the first major direct federal investments in expanding postsecondary opportunity for all Americans – the Higher Education Act and the National Vocational Student Loan Insurance Act – similarly limited access to federal funds solely to accredited institutions. Over the following decades, the pendulum has swung in both directions, including major reforms and renewed focus on student outcomes in the early 1990s, and deregulatory developments with the HEA reauthorizations of 1998 and 2008.

We suggest that accreditors consider a performance-based portfolio approach to institutional accreditation. Drawing from similar management approaches to monitoring performance and assessing risk in other sectors, including K-12 education, accreditors should consider employing an outcomes-focused framework in reviewing, monitoring and identifying poor performance and potential trouble spots in their institutional portfolio. Relatedly, the Department of Education should consider such portfolio performance in its review and recognition of accreditors to identify insufficient oversight. Such an approach would focus on results and facilitate continuous improvement in helping students succeed by utilizing existing outcomes data.


Our Recommendations

Regulatory Recommendations

  • Accreditors should examine and consider outcomes data, including the NACIQI Dashboard, in identifying poor-performing institutions and conduct risk-based and differentiated monitoring and accreditation reviews, using the existing flexibility provided under law and regulations.
  • The creation of a permanent task force for coordinating the flow of information about institutional performance, sanctions, and legal action, among accreditors, state authorizers and federal agencies, including the Department of Veterans Affairs and State Attorneys General, among others.
  • The Department of Education should adopt the GAO recommendation it agreed with in principle and begin using outcomes data systematically and extensively in its reviews of accreditors, including through comparisons with accreditor sanctions data to identify ineffective accreditors and inform its recognition process.
  • Accreditors that fail to take corrective action against low-performing schools and scrutinize whether they consistently apply and enforce their standards should be held accountable by the Department.
  • The Department should systematically and consistently analyze outcomes and sanctions data to prioritize program reviews, as well as oversight and enforcement actions more broadly. The Department should also explore the types of accreditation documentation, beyond probation letters, that can help inform and prioritize efforts to safeguard student and taxpayer dollars and take action accordingly.

Legislative Recommendations

  • Repeal the statutory prohibition on the Department’s ability to set and enforce expectations regarding student achievement standards in accreditor recognition criteria.
  • Require differentiated accreditation and recognition that replaces the current “all or nothing” approach (accredited or not, recognized or not) with a system that is driven by student outcomes and other risk factors and distinguishes accreditation levels among institutions and recognition levels among accreditors.
  • Set minimum thresholds or “bright lines” for the core metrics — retention, graduation, loan repayment and earnings – that will trigger automatic reviews by accreditors, require a plan of corrective action and evidence-driven interventions, and entail a set of progressively severe sanctions under specific timelines. Similarly, establish portfolio performance thresholds that will trigger accreditor reviews by the Department.
  • Allow accreditors and the Department to “reward” high-performing institutions and accreditors, respectively, with fast-track reviews, while requiring more rigorous and frequent reviews processes for low-performing institutions and accreditors.
  • Empower accreditors and the Department to take swift, emergency action against institutions and accreditors, respectively, with persistent low performance that pose an immediate and high level of risk to both students and taxpayers through expedited review.


Further Reading