- Accreditors are doing "far too little" to use data when reviewing colleges' performance and setting expectations for improvement, particularly with regard to race and ethnicity, explains a new report from EducationCounsel and the Institute for Higher Education Policy.
- The issue is particularly apt for regional accreditors, whose portfolios are not as homogenous as those of national accreditors, the report notes.
- IHEP's criticisms come as the higher education field takes a harder look at incorporating data into their own operations and benchmarks, and as accreditors are in the hot seat over proposed new oversight rules.
Accreditors "wield enormous power" to use data to hold colleges accountable for improvement, particularly around systemic racial and economic inequities, the report explains. By using more data in their own decision-making, accreditors could spur colleges to gather more quantitative measures on student outcomes, the report suggests.
"It confirms what many of us already know: Federal bodies, accreditors and institutions don't put enough emphasis on outcomes for which the equity piece of the puzzle is really important," said Wesley Whistle, senior advisor for policy and strategy at New America, a bipartisan think tank.
The report — based on a review of accreditor materials and interviews with staff — comes amid a contentious rewrite of rules governing accreditors' responsibilities, for which proposals so far ask to loosen both federal oversight of accreditors and accreditor oversight of colleges.
IHEP's analysis found accreditors are aware of the need for better data, including the use of common metrics to make it easier to calculate and compare outcomes across institutions. And they are making improvements by expanding the number of sources and data points they consider and sifting through those figures with more robust software, such as Salesforce.
But of the 10 accreditors tracked across 13 data points, from enrollment to credit completion, just three measured more than half. The most common were total enrollment, number of completions, completion rate and cohort default rate.
Further, the report found "no compelling evidence" that colleges that don't improve these measures face significant consequences, such as loss of accreditation.
Data can help design and focus technical assistance, identify ways to better allocate resources and connect peer institutions to share lessons learned, the report explains, particularly around ways to level the playing field for low-income students and students of color.
Equity impacts quality because "we understand how important the use of data is in driving change and improvement," said Mamie Voight, vice president of policy research at IHEP and a co-author of the report. "Accreditors asking institutions for disaggregated data sends the latter a message that equity is important."
Whistle agrees, saying it is "irresponsible" not to account for how addressing equity can improve quality.
"If you focus on closing gaps you can create large institutional improvements," he said.
Robert Kelchen, assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, sees it the other way around. "[S]omething has to be done to close the equity gap and the best way to do that is to enhance academic experiences," he said.
The report recommends that accreditors ask colleges to report more data points and disaggregate them "at least" by race, ethnicity and income. Relatively few accreditors do so already, even for top-line figures such as enrollment. However, doing so could help accreditors and colleges intervene sooner to address equity concerns.
Policymakers also play a role in equity improvements, said Antoinette Flores, associate director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning policy institute. Flores thinks the report is missing recommendations on how policymakers can help improve accreditors' data use and steps to improve outcomes.
"They don't do more because they aren't required to under federal law," Flores said, calling on policymakers to address the concern in a rewrite of the Higher Education Act."