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Promoting Greater Transparency and Accountability in Higher Education

The Department of Education announced executive actions and legislative proposals to promote transparency and accountability in higher education.

The Department of Education recently announced executive actions and legislative proposals to strengthen accreditation, the stamp of approval that colleges need before accessing federal financial aid. Together, these actions build on the work that this Administration has done to ensure that higher education institutions are effectively serving students and families while staying accountable to taxpayer dollars.

The Administration’s accreditation executive actions promote transparency and accountability in higher education by, among other efforts, publishing each accreditor’s standards for evaluating student outcomes and requiring accreditors to submit decision letters for institutions on probation. The Department of Education continues to call on Congress to promote accountability through student outcomes, with proposals including: repealing the ban on enforcing the use of student achievement standards in accreditation; requiring teach-out plans from high-risk institutions to ensure current students can still complete a degree elsewhere if a school closes; standardizing common definitions and data reporting; and publishing accreditation documents.

In his 2013 State of the Union address, the President recognized that we cannot continue to maintain the archaic 19th century accreditation system because it inhibits the very goals we are trying to achieve today: expanding college opportunity and preparing students to pursue their academic and career goals. Many colleges continue to stay accredited and receive Federal financial aid despite graduating a small fraction of their students on time, leaving students with unmanageable levels of debt that they are not repaying on time, and failing to prepare students for their career goals.

To combat these shortcomings, the President called on Congress to consider value, affordability, and student outcomes in making determinations about which colleges and universities receive access to the $150 billion in Federal student aid. The Administration has made historic investments in Pell grants and tax credits to make this Federal financial aid available, but it is allocated primarily based on student enrollment, rather than on student learning or success. Aside from the Federal government, plenty of other partners – like grantors, philanthropists, and alumni – also invest their limited time and money to higher education institutions and have an interest in ensuring that they are investing those limited resources wisely. The President continues to advocate for including measures of value and affordability in the existing accreditation system, or establishing a new, alternative system of accreditation that promotes student learning and success rather than enrollment alone.

The Administration also recognizes that there are many efforts across the higher education community to explore new ideas and more affordable models for offering a quality education, such as alternative structures to the semester-based curriculum, more short-term credential options, and online skills training. The Administration is exploring such approaches through its experimental sites initiatives, including Competency-Based Education, alternative approaches to accreditation through EQUIP, and the use of Pell for short-term programs, and aims to hold these ideas to higher standards to ensure they all offer students a quality education. As the Administration tests these promising ideas, it continues to call on Congress to explore rigorous alternative approaches to accreditation that are responsive to the need for higher standards and accountable innovation.

Together with the Administration’s College Scorecard, these actions to improve and strengthen college accreditation advance the President’s call to better align valuable higher education resources with the public’s interest in helping students succeed.