Rating accreditors: A policy group says one far exceeds the rest

This agency gets higher marks than others for its institutions' ability to keep student debt low.

When the Department of Education terminated the license of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) in August, it effectively put other agencies on notice. After the decision, Under-Secretary of Education James Kvaal said “the department has a responsibility to enforce accountability in the accreditation system and to ensure that students and taxpayers are protected.”

Already a step ahead—although raising concern from Kvaal about the potential for it to be disastrous for institutions that can’t comply—Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation that is now forcing institutions in the state of Florida to change accreditors every cycle. That will mean a monumental pivot for those colleges and universities to ensure they can maintain their operating status and receive federal Title IV funding in the future.

But will they and other institutions who shift to different accreditors be better off if they do make the switch?

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative non-profit organization based in Austin, recently released two reports on the state of higher education, including one on the struggles of some programs within the state to ensure strong student outcomes. It cites many that should either be sanctioned or eliminated because of the high debt-to-income ratio students incur even after three years. The second, Which College Accreditors Are Failing Students?, looks squarely at the nation’s seven regional accreditors (excluding ACICS) and which ones are performing better than others when it comes to oversight of institutions, their degree programs and certificates.

“Accreditors do not always succeed in safeguarding taxpayer dollars,” Andrew Gillen, senior policy analyst at the Foundation and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, notes in the report. “Many students are graduating with degrees that leave them at high risk financially, with earnings too low to be able to afford to repay their student loans.”

More from UB: Sanction or sunset 58 college programs? Texas policy group says they should be.

The recent situation at Virginia-based Stratford University, which shut its doors only a week after telling students it was closing, is one of the many examples of for-profit institutions failing to deliver on its promises—and under the auspices of an accreditor, ACICS, that has been scorched by the Department of Education for repeated “noncompliance.” There are also students who attend seemingly strong public and private four-year not-for-profits that find themselves in deep holes financially because either their colleges or their accreditors are underperforming in various degree programs.

Based on its metrics of measuring the performance of those who graduate after three years, the Texas Public Policy Foundation says the “worst” accreditor is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools because it oversees more failing undergraduate degree programs than successful ones. Most of the institutions in both Texas, and yes the state of Florida, are served by the SACS. What is intriguing about Texas—and not Florida because of the DeSantis mandates that institutions must switch every cycle, even if their accreditor is performing well—is that institutions can switch to better accreditors once their cycles end.

“Texas (and other states) could implement and improve upon Florida’s new approach,” Gillen notes in the report. “Colleges currently accredited by poor performing accreditors could be required to find new accreditation when their current accreditation expires, whereas colleges accredited by a top performing accreditor could renew their accreditation with the same accreditor several times before being required to switch.”

But Gillen notes that Florida’s approach is novel (if institutions again can meet timelines) in that it might offer new insight into how well, or how poorly, a college is performing.

Which accreditors perform well?

Those looking for the crème-de-la-crème of accreditors, according to the measures from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, can turn to the Higher Learning Commission, which has the highest-performing number of institutions relative to those performing poorly in keeping debt low for students after they graduate. The HLC is strong not only in terms of bachelor’s and master’s programs but also in associate’s degrees, where its percentage of those it accredits (42%) outpaces those that are underperforming (30%).

On the flip side on associate’s degrees, both the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges (1% of all programs but 11% that are failing) and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (17% of all programs but 25% that are failing) show upside-down results. Both the Western and Middle States agencies also show underperformance on master’s programs. The Western model (not to be confused with the accreditor that handles Western Junior Colleges) also fails in terms of success with doctoral and professional degree programs, according to the Texas Policy metrics.

When it comes to bachelor’s degrees—the most robust category—the Higher Learning Commission beats them all (36% of programs against 27% failing), while the SACS has a dreadful 42% of failing programs relative to the 25% of programs it accredits.

As for the others, Gillen says, “honorable mentions go to the New England Commission of Higher Education and the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. While both accreditors are small relative to their peers, they both consistently account for a smaller share of failing programs than their share of all programs, and they both perform well at the associate and bachelor’s degree levels.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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