Graduation rates at core of potential accreditation overhaul

Institutions, accreditors and officials preparing for new frontier in accountability, data-driven financing

A recent joint statement from higher education accrediting bodies has heightened the focus on college and university graduation rates, but some advocates and executives say that accountability requires a greater value of institutional context.

The Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions this week announced plans to conduct more intensive review of four-year colleges and universities with graduation rates at 25% or below, and at community colleges with rates at or below 15%.

The initiative is announced as disagreements continue to grow between accrediting agencies and the U.S. Department of Education over which metrics are used to determine institutional solvency, and whether to funnel federal financial aid to schools with low metrics.

Inconsistent data

In a letter sent to member institution presidents prior to the announcement, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges President Belle Wheelan said that inquiries would be made to schools posting graduation rates below the thresholds and would include a review of high loan default rates, but that all reviews would be made with a full complement of data collected from the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and the National Student Clearinghouse.

The distinction between the two data sets, Wheelan said in the letter, was a critical element of understanding the true number and associated proportions of students counted in institutional graduation rates.

“Regional accreditors also have joined forces to encourage the U.S. Department of Education to ensure that we have more accurate data,” Wheelan wrote.  “We have noted that in some cases, the graduation data reported by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDs) Data Center on its main webpage, and IPEDS data used by the College Navigator and separately for the College Scorecard can report three different rates for the same institution, which can vary by as much as 25 percent, resulting in confusion for institutions and students alike.”

Graduation rates are also a core element of legislation introduced this week by U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Dick Durbin and Brian Schatz in an effort to reorganize standards. According to a release, the Accreditation Reform and Enhanced Accountability Act of 2016 (AREAA) would “take steps to reduce student debt and to protect students and taxpayers by reforming higher education accreditation and strengthening the Education Department's (ED) ability to hold accreditors accountable,” with new allowances for the department to require accreditors to measure outcomes such as loan default and graduation rates, retention rates, job placement and earnings as principles of affirmation.

"Accrediting agencies are supposed to make sure students get a good education and ensure colleges aren't cheating students while sucking down taxpayer money. But right now the accreditation system is broken," Warren said in a statement. "This bill gives the Education Department more tools to hold accreditors accountable, increases accreditors' focus on student outcomes and affordability, and requires accreditors to respond when there is evidence of colleges committing fraud."

In a statement, Council for Higher Education Accreditation President Judith Eaton said that the bill was an extension of increasing demands for accountability from accrediting agencies.

“The Warren/Durbin/Schatz [bill] is yet another indication of the shifting demands on accreditation. Accreditation is now called upon to play a more vigorous public accountability role – to do more to protect students and inform the public,” said Eaton. “This is in addition to accreditation’s longstanding role in assuring and improving quality, working with institutions and programs. The bill is part of efforts to provide more direct oversight of accreditation by the federal government, whether through the Congress or the U.S. Department of Education.”

Concern for institutional mission

Some presidents have indicated concern with the proposals.

“We’re doing what others won’t do, and we’re doing it with less,” said Wilberforce University President Herman Felton. “The feeling is that the playing field is not level, because judging an [historically black college or university] against a school with billion dollar endowments doesn’t account for the work of educating students who need the most help.”

According to the Department of Education's recent College Scorecard, Wilberforce currently has a 21% graduation rate and a student body of just over 350 students. Felton, who was appointed as president in July after serving as senior vice president at Livingstone College, says the proposed graduation rate threshold flies in the face of other standards which encourage access and affordability as indicators of institutional success.

“Why 25%? Why not 91% for a school that has a 12% admission rate,” Felton asked. “A Swarthmore grad has a certain amount of educational aspects that allows them to be where they need to be. Schools like Wilberforce have many first-generation students, who come with very distinct needs, not deficiencies.”

“We all should be held accountable, but we all don’t have the same resources and aren’t dealing with the same patients,” he said.

Western Governors University President Scott Pulsipher endorsed the review plan, but also said that officials and lawmakers should offer careful consideration of the variety of schools which have qualified for accreditation and federal financial support.

“We think that accountability is generally a good thing, as long as we continue to recognize that different institutions have different types of students, and that student make up is going to have to be factored into how they evaluate graduation rates. CHEA highlighted in particular the limitations of the IPEDS data, because it it is the first-time, full-time students, and that’s not necessarily the makeup of our student population; in fact, it is not the makeup of our population.”

Student profiles was a point was a point underscored in a May editorial written by Wheelan and Advance Education President and CEO Mark Elgart for the Chronicle of Higher Education, which stressed the incomplete metrics used by the DOE to assess graduation rates.

“Ipeds has looked only at first-time, full-time students who enroll in an institution in the fall term and receive a degree from that same institution; they now amount to fewer than half of all college students.This year, Ipeds has begun asking colleges to report data on part-time and non-first-time students, which will address some limitations. But the department still has not taken on key issues. For example, how should colleges account for students who complete a credential elsewhere?”

A new culture for philanthropy

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation this week announced updated language on its higher education advocacy priorities, citing the need for federal and state governments to overhaul funding systems for individual students and public universities, to create simplified access to student aid and to advance clearer pathways to careers. 

As institutions, accreditors and government continues to spar, one of the wealthiest and most prolific educational advocacy organizations says that all sides must find common ground on outcomes and metrics that do not cause unintended harm for institutions or students, especially those with historic disadvantages tied to race or economic disparities.

“Better aligning federal and state financing streams with the needs of the new majority of college students will not by itself close equity and attainment gaps and meet workforce needs. But it is increasingly clear that efforts to achieve those goals will fall short without this alignment.”

Filed Under: Higher Ed Policy & Regulation