WASHINGTON — Arguing that millions of federal tax dollars and the futures of low-income students are at stake, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., on Wednesday called for accrediting agencies to play a more active role in fighting fraud, waste and abuse in higher education.
“Don’t sit on your hands as states and the federal government go after schools for fraud,” Warren told approximately 400 attendees at the annual conference of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, or CHEA.
Rather, Warren said, accrediting agencies should be more aggressive and work with the federal government to share information and determine if schools are cheating students.
“You’re supposed to be the ones on the front lines here,” Warren said.
Warren also said she planned to reintroduce a revised version of her proposed Accreditation Reform and Enhanced Accountability Act — which she and Sens. Dick Durban, D-Ill., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, originally introduced last year — in the current Congress as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
Among other things, the proposed law would have accreditors focus on metrics such as graduation rates, loan repayment rates, loan default rates, and job placement rates as they evaluate schools.
“It would empower accreditors with the ability to evaluate college affordability and how well colleges are enrolling and serving their low-income students,” Warren said. “It would require accreditors to respond quickly when shady schools are under investigation for fraud.”
Warren’s remarks come at a critical juncture for American higher education as the U.S. Department of Education awaits new leadership under the administration of President Donald J. Trump.
It also comes as the nomination of Trump’s pick for that leadership — billionaire philanthropist and school choice and voucher proponent Betsy DeVos — was thrown into question Wednesday after two Republican lawmakers announced their opposition to DeVos’ nomination because of her inexperience with public schools, according to the Associated Press.
And it comes in the wake of back-to-back closures of two large for-profit college chains — Corinthian Colleges in 2015 and ITT Tech in 2016 — amid allegations of fraud. Both college chains were accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, or ACICS, which Warren accused of being a “rubber stamp” for shoddy schools.
Warren said it was “good” that the Department of Education decided not to recognize ACICS; however, ACICS is still fighting the Education Department’s decision to terminate recognition of ACICS.
Warren said lax oversight transcends ACICS and permeates the accrediting field. To bolster her point, she cited a 2014 U.S. Government Accountability Office report that found that accreditors terminated the accreditation of less than 1 percent of their member schools. The report also noted how accreditors were “no more likely to issue terminations or probations to schools with weaker student outcomes compared to schools with stronger student outcomes.”
Warren’s remarks were generally well-received, but not without a fair share of criticism from accreditation leaders, who say their work is more nuanced and complex than how it is often portrayed in policy discussions and speeches.
Conference attendee Dr. Richard Winn, interim president of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, said he would “challenge the assumption that accreditors do their best work only when they withdraw accreditation.”
Winn said the focus on terminations detracts from the many other instances in which accreditors step in and help pull an institution “back from the brink.”
“It is a tragedy when accreditation is pulled from an institution and it is done only with the greatest of anguish on the part of the accreditor,” Winn said. “So to begin with the assumption that accreditors are not doing their work if they haven’t pulled accreditation for a certain percentage of their members is a flawed assumption. It doesn’t characterize the work that we do.
“Bullet points and talking points are always a disservice to this complex conversation,” Winn said.
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