Nation & World

Under pressure, college watchdog groups sharpening their teeth

When City College of San Francisco was given a year to rein in a massive debt, fix deteriorating facilities and bring its academic courses up to standards, it wasn’t state or federal regulators that were threatening to close the college if it didn’t respond. Nor was it parents, legislators or impatient bankers.

The shutdown warning came from an obscure organization probably unknown to most of the 80,000 students who attend the huge community college: the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, one of six regional accreditors that license two- and four-year institutions.

These regional accrediting agencies, and some of the 52 national accreditors that regulate religious, online, career and other specific types of schools, have started to crack down on universities and colleges in the face of increasing pressure from Congress, the White House and education reformers – and threats that the government could step in to take over their roles if they don’t.

Though largely out of sight of most Americans, accreditors control the approvals that keep colleges and universities pulling in students and eligible for taxpayer dollars. The U.S. Department of Education and states rely on them when determining whether institutions are eligible for billions in taxpayer-funded financial aid.

Yet for decades, according to their critics, the accrediting agencies – made up mostly of professors and administrators who judge the work of other professors and administrators – rubber-stamped universities’ accreditations after reviewing their academics, student services and finances every few years.

As a result, “many accredited public and nonprofit colleges and universities across the country fail even basic tests of quality, yet remain accredited,” said a September report by the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank. Accreditors have failed to protect taxpayers, who invest billions in universities and colleges, and threaten America’s global competitiveness in higher education, the AEI report said.

Now, pushed by parents and politicians who increasingly are questioning the return on their higher education investments, accreditors appear to be tightening the reins. They brought 82 citations, or “negative actions,” in 2011 against the colleges they oversee, and 77 last year – about 50 percent more than they did in 2009 – according to figures provided by Moody’s Investors Service.

More than 75 percent of these actions were warnings, but two or three schools per year have been stripped of their accreditation altogether. That seems to remain a last resort. In the case of City College of San Francisco, for instance, accreditors didn’t threaten to close the school until July, when shaky finances brought it to the brink of bankruptcy.

While the number of negative actions has subsided slightly this year, to 49 through Oct. 30, the pressure has only intensified. Some members of the U.S. education secretary’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity have called for dramatic changes in the accreditation system. President Barack Obama has suggested that the process needs to be reformed. And members of Congress have questioned whether accreditors are equipped to deal with the flurry of innovation in higher education, including the growing use of online courses.

“As our higher education system adapts to embrace 21st century student demographics, we must now explore whether the accreditation system is also due for reforms,” Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., chairwoman of a House higher education subcommittee, told a congressional hearing.

Foxx complained that accreditors have an “inherent conflict of interest” because they are, essentially, colleges reviewing other colleges. Barbara Beno, president of the accrediting agency that oversees City College, agreed that increased federal scrutiny has pushed accrediting groups like hers to take a tougher stand. When university and college leaders object to this, she said, they’re being disingenuous, since they’re the ones who created the system.

“The standards we have were made up by the institutions,” Beno said.

Like Foxx, some other policymakers and outsiders argue that the existing accreditation process discourages higher education innovation at the very time it’s needed most. Critics say accreditors often refuse to certify independent online programs. They say students and parents need new ways to judge educational quality beyond just knowing if a campus is accredited.

“The reality is that what we’re doing right now doesn’t work,” said Hank Brown, a Colorado lawyer, former U.S. senator, former president of the University of Colorado and author of the AEI report. “You’re kidding yourself if you say it does.”

Rather than continuing to use accreditation as a measure to determine whether colleges and universities remain eligible for federal financial aid, Brown has proposed requiring them to provide the government with data showing track records in areas such as graduation, student loan default, job-placement rates, average student debt and graduates’ income.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Education declined to answer accreditation-related questions.

Among accreditors’ most pressing needs is figuring out how to deal with a new crop of private higher-education entrepreneurs, many of them online, which do not qualify for traditional accreditation because they don’t operate with the administrative and academic structures accreditors were designed to judge.

Without such recognition, the online programs are not only ineligible for federal financial aid; their credits are rarely accepted by other colleges or graduate schools. That means new players are forced to team up with schools that have been validated by accreditors – or else admit to students that they don’t have accreditation.

“We’re really caught in a no-win situation,” said Burck Smith, CEO and founder of StraighterLine, which offers online general-education courses some colleges accept for transfer purposes.

Higher education used to be a simple four-year process, said Washington attorney Michael Goldstein, who works with colleges on innovation and accreditation issues. Students would enter college at 18 and then pop out four years later with a diploma.

The proliferation of new types of programs, he said, has chopped this process into pieces that work independently from each other, and accreditors are “profoundly unwilling” to find ways to evaluate those suddenly disjointed pieces.

“Accreditation isn’t set up for that,” Goldstein said. “It’s only set up to look at the whole thing.”

Accreditors respond that federal rules have limited their ability to examine online programs not associated with traditional schools. But they are willing and able to adapt, said Sylvia Manning, outgoing president of the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits colleges in a large swath of the country, from Arizona to Ohio.

Manning, who will retire from her post in July, said colleges need to take better care before jumping into new endeavors. Her commission this year ordered Tiffin University in Ohio to discontinue its online Ivy Bridge College, which it ran in collaboration with a California company.

“This is very new,” Manning said. “The people at the front of the line are going to make mistakes.”

Some traditional colleges and universities have taken care to bring accreditors into the mix when designing online programs. The Keck Graduate Institute, one of Southern California’s Claremont Colleges, is in the midst of seeking accreditation of its Minerva Schools, a partnership between Keck and the San Francisco-based Minerva Project. Minerva undergraduates will split time between online seminars and international residency programs.

Minerva is not seeking approval for its students to qualify for federal student aid, said Steven Casper, a Keck dean and its accreditation liaison. But the school wants accreditors’ approval so students know it offers high-quality education, he said.

“We’re trying to get the top 2 percent of students to come to Minerva,” Casper said. “These people are going to want to go on to the top graduate schools, and we’re worried they won’t be able to get in with a degree from an unaccredited school.”

And Northern Arizona University designed a new online program called Personalized Learning to resemble traditional programs so it would seem familiar to accreditors.

Conventional colleges and universities are the entities best equipped to innovate, said Alison Brown, an associate vice president at Northern Arizona.

Supporters of the current system say its general independence from the government is the best way to ensure that politicians do not influence colleges’ coursework. The accreditors, they say, are an important buffer between federal regulators and the schools.

As president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, Judith Eaton works to keep accreditors independent from government.

“I would be much more comfortable if the federal government turned to the higher education community and said, ‘This is what we aspire to. You do it,’” she said.