Durbin Asks 60 Accrediting Agencies for Explanation of Standards They Use to Ensure Quality at Colleges and Universities
Says agencies that serve as "gateways to federal funding" should ensure maximum return on taxpayer investment
[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) today wrote to 60 accrediting agencies around the country asking for an explanation of the accreditation standards to better understand the role they play in holding colleges and universities to high academic standards. Durbin’s request comes after recent Congressional hearings and media reports that have highlighted serious problems with for-profit colleges and universities.
“Accreditation agencies such as yours serve as the gateway to federal funding, and students rely on the seal of approval you provide,” Durbin wrote. “As Congress works to reduce the federal deficit, we are taking a closer look at federal spending. Federal student aid makes sense when we can ensure the maximum return on investment. Accrediting agencies are well positioned to provide assurance to taxpayers and students that federal financial aid funding is only going to institutions of quality and rigor that are likely to produce good outcomes for students. I look forward to working with accrediting agencies to guarantee a high-quality education for all our nation’s students.”
Last week, Durbin called on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to take more aggressive steps to identify colleges and universities that have taken advantage of GI Bill benefits and to remove them from the program. Specifically, Durbin asked the Secretary of the VA, Eric Shinseki, to look into the fourteen other Westwood College campuses including the four that are located in Illinois. Durbin also called on the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, to do more to protect students and taxpayers from the worst excesses of the for-profit industry. According to a recent GAO study, the Department of Defense lacks basic oversight mechanisms of its Tuition Assistance program having less than a third of the courses offered to military members reviewed.
[Text of the letter below]
March 14, 2011
Dear [Accreditation Head]:
I write to request information on current accreditation standards and quality reviews. Recent Congressional hearings and media reports have highlighted serious problems with for-profit institutions of higher education, and I would like to better understand the role that accrediting agencies play in holding all colleges to high standards of academic quality.
An institution of higher education is able to access federal Title IV funding only if it is accredited by a federally approved accreditation agency. Accreditation agencies such as yours serve as the gateway to federal funding, and students rely on the seal of approval you provide. Current law affords accrediting agencies wide latitude in determining standards of academic quality and approval processes. But that latitude leaves you with an important responsibility. The federal government, taxpayers, and students depend on your judgment and deserve assurances that your agency is weeding out low-performing institutions.
Looking at the current state of higher education, it is reasonable to question whether accreditation agencies have been living up to this responsibility. Information has come to light about for-profit colleges that raises serious concerns about the rigor of the accreditation process. A quarter of students who attend for-profit colleges will default on their federal student loans within three years. Recruiters have engaged in aggressive and deceptive practices to enroll students. And some for-profit colleges have even purchased non-profit schools in order to secure their accreditation.
Problems in higher education are not limited to for-profit colleges. Far too many traditional colleges and universities have persistently low completion and retention rates. This problem is most pronounced among low-income and minority students, and there is little sign of improvement at most colleges. I question whether a college where fewer than twenty percent of students graduate year after year deserves continued accreditation and the federal funding that follows.
I would appreciate learning from you more about the quality standards you use to review institutions of higher education for accreditation. Specifically, do you consider completion rates, retention rates, job placement rates, licensure exam scores, debt to income ratios, and 3-year student loan default rates as a part of the accreditation process? If so, what are the benchmarks that colleges are required to meet? Do you consider those statistics for particular demographic groups, such as Pell grant recipients or minority students? Please also provide me with information on the auditing and verification processes you utilize to ensure data reported by colleges is accurate.
As Congress works to reduce the federal deficit, we are taking a close look at federal spending. Federal student aid makes sense when we can ensure the maximum return on investment. Accrediting agencies are well positioned to provide assurance to taxpayers and students that federal financial aid is only going to institutions of quality and rigor that are likely to produce good outcomes for students. I look forward to working with accrediting agencies to guarantee a high-quality education for all our nation’s students.
Richard J. Durbin
United States Senator
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