Accreditation Reform and the Warren Bill

Accreditation Committee Member, Los Angeles City College

The Accreditation Reform and Enhanced Accountability Act of 2016 (Senators Warren, Durbin, and Schatz) intends to “improve the effectiveness of recognized accreditation as an eligibility requirement for federal education funding and to increase the accountability of institutions of higher education for student outcomes.” According to the senators, the changes would “ensure colleges aren’t cheating students while sucking down taxpayer money” and restrict those “for-profit schools [that] have lured students into taking on huge debt for an education that is essentially worthless.” A major impetus behind the bill is the failure of “fraudulent institutions that remained accredited up until the day they closed,” such as Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institutes. If approved, however, the Warren Bill would impact all institutions, and implications are included for California community colleges. This summary is intended to help local academic senates better understand the proposed changes and additions to the accreditation sections of the Higher Education Act.

The Warren Bill

The Accreditation Reform and Enhanced Accountability Act[1] offers numerous changes to accreditation criteria. Student achievement standards would change from different standards established by institutions to specific standards determined by the Secretary of Education including retention, graduation and course completion, cohort default, repayment, transfer, student earnings after graduation, job placement, and professional and vocational certification and licensing examination pass rates. Other new criteria would include the affordability of tuition and fees as well as enrollment levels of students receiving Federal Pell Grants.

Operating procedures would require a teach-out plan for those institutions that are on show cause or have lost accreditation and would include an expanded reporting of the results of accreditation. A new requirement would be that within four years of passage of the revised act, accredited institutions must have public credit transfer agreements with all other accredited institutions that provide for the transfer of credit earned for general education courses and for courses that are part of substantially similar programs.

The current Higher Education Act specifies that the Secretary of Education does not have permission to establish any criteria that accrediting agencies must use. New language would state that nothing would prohibit the secretary from establishing such criteria for accrediting agencies. Furthermore, an institution would not be able to change its accrediting agency unless the secretary finds reasonable cause and only if the institution has been reaccredited for two years under the most recent accreditation standards.

Accrediting agencies would also have new requirements. Language would be added that limits accreditors from being family members, lobbyists, former employees, or those who stand to gain financially from accreditation. Accreditors would be fined if they do not notify the secretary that an institution has failed to meet accreditation criteria, has engaged in fraud, was found to have harmed prior or current students, or if the accrediting agency fails to act on an institution. The secretary would have expanded power to enact performance-based reviews to determine the quality of accrediting agencies, and language indicating that the secretary cannot base decisions about accrediting agencies on criteria outside those mentioned in the bill would be removed. New language would be added stating that accrediting agencies that do not meet the requirements of the bill would be limited, suspended, terminated, required to take action, or fined, with the fines to be paid equally by all institutions under the accrediting agency. Existing language stating that the secretary shall not promulgate any regulation with respect to the standards of an accrediting agency would be removed.

A number of new sections would be added. The Secretary of Education would set minimum baseline thresholds for standards and student achievement measures including graduation, default, and repayment rates. In order to remain accredited, institutions would need to meet those thresholds for two out of three years. The secretary would provide student achievement data to accrediting agencies, disaggregated by Pell Grant recipients. Institutions being investigated, failing to meet minimum baseline thresholds and measures, or engaging in deceptive practices would undergo an “enhanced review.” In addition, enhanced review, formal action, request for information, or improvement plans would be required if an institution changes ownership, has a rapid change of size, is in poor financial health, has a lowered credit rating, demonstrates financial weakness, or has developed a substantive change to programs or locations. Another addition is the concept of differentiated accreditation status, in that an institution could be “accredited with distinction” or “accredited with risk” if it does or does not meet the student achievement standards and minimum baseline thresholds set by the secretary.

Civil action by an accrediting agency, institution, or individual concerning accreditation would have to be taken to the appropriate US district court. A final addition is that 18 months after the act passes, institutions would be required to display and regularly update uniform language as to their accreditation status on their website, with the language to be written by the secretary.

Potential Impact

In October 2016 then-ACCJC President Barbara Beno forwarded an analysis of the bill by the Council of Regional Accreditation Commissions (C-RAC), which according to Beno articulates the “grave concerns accreditors and higher education organizations have about the bill.” The C-RAC’s concerns focus on the expansion of federal government in accreditation, notably in terms of the increased influence of the Secretary of Education, expansion of accreditation standards, setting of thresholds for student achievement, establishment of enhanced reviews, differentiated accreditation status, and limited ability of sanctioned institutions to change accreditors.

The ASCCC Accreditation Committee shares some of these concerns. Despite the Warren Bill stating that nothing in the revised act would limit academic freedom or provide authority to the Secretary of Education to limit academic freedom, the expansion of federal powers is troubling, notably in terms of the secretary setting the minimum baseline thresholds for student achievement. Most problematic is that an institution would no longer review itself in terms of how well it meets its mission but instead in terms of how well it meets the standards that will be set by the Secretary of Education. The Accreditation Committee acknowledges that positive outcomes could result from increased transparency and accountability of our accrediting agencies, and no question exists that fraudulent for-profit schools have harmed students. Nevertheless, the large number of variables contributing to student achievement in California’s community colleges makes the committee question whether a one-size-fits-all approach to accreditation standards led by the federal government will be in the best interest of colleges and students.

Given that the proposed changes will put additional scrutiny on for-profits schools that receive federal student aid, the Accreditation Reform and Enhanced Accountability Act could receive an interesting reception from the administration of Donald Trump, who ran on a platform of free markets and who supports “productive” competition among schools. Additionally, Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has a long record of supporting for-profit charter schools. Although the future of the bill remains unclear and the legislation will most probably change from its current form, all educators should stay informed as to the progress of the bill and provide appropriate feedback to those involved in its passage.