By Michael Itzkowitz
According to the US Department of Education (Department), “The goal of accreditation is to ensure that institutions of higher education meet acceptable levels of quality.” As a parent or prospective student, one might reasonably expect that to mean that an accredited college is more likely than not to provide students with a quality credential that leads to a good job and the ability to pay down their loans after they attend. However, according to the Department’s own data released earlier this month, some college accreditors show more than half of their member institutions demonstrating poor outcomes, leaving most students without a certificate or degree, earning less than the average high school graduate, and struggling to repay their loans after attending. That’s right, half of their students.
This begs the question: are policymakers doing enough to ensure that a few poor performing accrediting agencies don’t leave millions of students with little chance to graduate, obtain successful labor market outcomes, and pay down their education debt?
This week, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity — also known as NACIQI — will meet to review several college accreditors and make recommendations to the Department on whether they should remain federally recognized. To help guide the Committee, this piece analyzes newly released Department data to highlight whether an accreditor’s standards are of sufficient educational quality. Within it, we examine the outcomes of all accredited institutions, as well as the portfolio of the two largest institutional accreditors up for re-recognition — the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET) and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC). If too many schools under an accreditor’s purview show the majority of students unable to get through college with a quality credential, its standards may be insufficient.
Overview of Outcomes at Accredited Colleges
Hundreds of institutions enrolling millions of students are fully accredited and allowed to participate in the federal student aid programs despite poor graduation rates, employment, and loan repayment outcomes for their students. While accrediting agencies sometimes look at student outcomes, they don’t always use those data to actually hold schools accountable, and very rarely strip a school of its accredited status on the basis of students’ achievement.
For example, 1,057 accredited institutions show fewer than half of their students (who entered and never transferred) earning a certificate or degree within eight years of enrollment — one of the most important indicators of future earnings and successful loan repayment. Yet, last year these institutions received a hefty $23 billion in federal student aid dollars to help fund their operations, even though one out of every two students who attend will never earn the credential they initially sought.
Another indication of educational quality is the successful preparation of students to enter the workforce earning a reasonable salary, defined as better off than they would have been if they had never attended the institution. Yet many institutions receiving an accreditor’s seal of approval show little to no economic success whatsoever for the students who attend. In fact, 953 institutions leave the majority of their former students earning less than an average high school graduate ($28,000) within 10 years of entering the institution. Yet, because of their accredited status, they remain eligible to receive money from the federal piggybank, raking in more than $7 billion just last year. Forty of these institutions even left most of their students earning less than the federal minimum wage throughout the year ($15,080). Even so, they received $31 million in taxpayer-financed student aid during award year 2017–2018.
One of the most important measures for students and taxpayers is whether they will be able to pay down their loans after they attend. It’s one indication that students are receiving a return on their educational investment financed with the help of federal student loans. Yet, accreditation does little to ensure this outcome, either; hundreds of institutions leave their student borrowers not making sufficient loan payments to even keep up with their principal balance — meaning they owe even more than the amount they initially borrowed a few years after leaving. In fact, 2,238 accredited institutions show more than half of their former students unable to begin paying down their principal within three years of leaving, a sign of economic distress. These institutions still cashed in over $41 billion in financial aid, all financed by the taxpayers and the federal government.
Institutional Accreditors Currently Applying for Re-Recognition
Below, we examine the two largest institutional accreditors applying for re-recognition, the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET) and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC). Specifically, we look at federal data to determine how well the students of institutions in their portfolios fare after leaving school.
Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training
ACCET currently accredits 64 institutions across the United States. It primarily oversees for-profit institutions that grant certificates rather than two- or four-year degrees. While each of its member institutions show completion rates of more than 50% for students who entered and never transferred, earning a certificate or degree from these schools is shown to provide little value to its graduates. For example, out of the 22 ACCET institutions with earnings data available, 18 (82 percent) show the majority of their students earning $28,000 or less per year. With such low earnings at most institutions, it’s no surprise that most students who attend ACCET institutions are unable to begin paying down their educational debt within a few years of leaving. Out of the 47 ACCET institutions with loan repayment data available, 27 (57 percent) show fewer than half of their students able to make a dent in their loan balance within three years of leaving. Six of these ACCET-approved institutions show fewer than one in four of student borrowers able to do so.
The largest ACCET school, the United Education Institute, received $53 million in federal student aid disbursement last year, yet shows some of the worst outcomes for students. Formerly accredited by the embattled Accrediting Council for Independent College and Schools, the United Education Institute shows virtually no labor market return for most students who attend, with the majority earning less than $25,000 per year within 10 years of enrolling. Three-fourths of student borrowers at this institution also are not paying down their student loans, as only 24 percent have made sufficient payments to at least cover their accumulating interest and pay down $1 of principal within three years of leaving the institution. Even with such poor outcomes, ACCET reports that United Education Institute is in compliance with all of the agency’s accreditation standards, begging the question of whether its student achievement standards are sufficient to measure educational quality.
Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges
ACCJC currently accredits 131 institutions. It primarily oversees public colleges that grant associate’s degrees, in addition to several certificate-granting institutions and for-profit colleges. ACCJC’s member institutions struggle with completing their students, increasing their employability, and providing them with the opportunities to begin the process of paying down their loans after leaving. In fact, accreditor dashboard data reveals that out of the 128 institutions with completion data available, half show completion rates of 50% or less for students who entered and never transferred elsewhere. Sixteen of these institutions even graduate fewer than one in every four students who walk through their doors. Twenty-four ACCJC institutions also fail to provide sufficient opportunity after college for most students who enroll, as more than half leave earning no more than the average high school graduate. And while most ACCJC member institutions show low borrowing rates, 88% leave the majority of their student borrowers unable to pay down even $1 on their loan principal within three years of leaving. Overall, only 32,995 out of 93,654 borrowers (35 percent) at ACCJC schools are shown to have made payments large enough to cover their interest during this time.
The ACCJC school that received the largest disbursement in federal student last year — San Joaquin Valley College — took in $63 million in federal grants and loans, yet shows almost half of former students earning more than the average high school graduate. And seven out of every 10 student borrowers who attended this institution were shown to owe even more on their educational debt within three years of leaving, an indication that they were unable to make loan payments that at least covered accumulating interest. Even with these poor outcomes, San Joaquin Valley College’s accredited status allowed students to borrow approximately $37 million in federal loans last year alone, an overall loan balance that will likely grow for many of them, rather than shrink, in the near future.
As NACIQI and the Department determine the fate of college accreditors’ recognition this week, they will have to ask themselves whether each accreditor’s standards are sufficient to ensure good outcomes at the institutions they oversee. If most institutions within an accreditor’s portfolio leave most students degreeless, underemployed, and unable to pay down their loans, are their standards really up to snuff? Probably not. And if we don’t demand better outcomes from these entities that receive recognition from the federal government, the “signal” of college accreditation will mean even less than it does today.