Christopher Cross and Nancy Doorey
September 12, 2022
Christopher Cross and Nancy Doorey are former public members of the WASC Senior College and University Commission.
Accreditation seems like one of those boring inside baseball terms. But in the higher education world, accreditation is the seal of approval indicating that programs or schools meet specific standards. It also is the key that unlocks access to tens of billions of federal student aid dollars.
Unfortunately, the accreditation process is seriously flawed.
At some accredited institutions, less than one-fourth of students earn a four-year degree within six years. Those institutions leave many students with crushing debt but little to no increase in earning potential.
We have seen accredited colleges that spend more than 50% of their operating budgets, which come primarily from federal student aid dollars, on aggressive marketing and recruitment instead of teaching and learning. Their students are often single working parents, veterans and students of color — people who are trying to create a better future for themselves and their families. They deserve better.
Many of these institutions are for-profit schools. Some are nonprofit colleges that have outsourced much of their operations to for-profit companies that get rich from going after vulnerable students and the federal student grants and loans they bring. Yes, some public institutions also do not measure up.
Congress and the U.S. Department of Education must raise the bar for accreditors to better protect students, their families and the American taxpayer. But to do so, they must update the accreditation system to better serve today’s needs.
Fifty years ago, when accreditation was written into federal law, the primary issue was access to postsecondary education.
Today, the issue of adequate quality has emerged as a key factor. An institution’s outcomes can assure students and families that they have made a wise investment in selecting a school.
Five decades ago, there were also few for-profit colleges. And online program managers, which are third-party companies that provide services such as marketing and recruitment, didn’t exist. Elaborate business arrangements and buyout structures, such as for-profit companies seeking to spin off their colleges as nonprofits, are emerging. Often these proposals are so financially complex that they cannot be adequately evaluated through today’s accreditation system, which relies on volunteer review teams.