Inspector General Keeps the Pressure on a Regional Accreditor

May 27, 2010

The inspector general of the U.S. Department of Education has reaffirmed a recommendation that the department should consider sanctions for the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, one of the nation's major regional accrediting organizations. In a report this week, the Office of Inspector General issued its final recommendations stemming from a 2009 examination of the commission's standards for measuring credit hours and program length, and affirmed its earlier critique that the commission had been too lax in its standards for determining the amount of credit a student receives for course work.

The Higher Learning Commission accredits more than 1,000 institutions in 19 states. The Office of Inspector General completed similar reports for two other regional accreditors late last year but did not suggest any sanctions for those organizations.

Possible sanctions against an accreditor include limiting, suspending, or terminating its recognition by the secretary of education as a reliable authority for determining the quality of education at the institutions it accredits. Colleges need accreditation from a federally recognized agency in order to be eligible to participate in the federal student-aid programs.

In its examination of the Higher Learning Commission, the office looked at the commission's reaccreditation of six member institutions: Baker College, DePaul University, Kaplan University, Ohio State University, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and the University of Phoenix. The office chose those institutions—two public, two private, and two proprietary institutions—as those that received the highest amounts of federal funds under Title IV, the section of the Higher Education Act that governs the federal student-aid programs.

It also reviewed the accreditation status of American InterContinental University and the Art Institute of Colorado, two institutions that had sought initial accreditation from the commission during the period the office studied.

The review found that the Higher Learning Commission "does not have an established definition of a credit hour or minimum requirements for program length and the assignment of credit hours," the report says. "The lack of a credit-hour definition and minimum requirements could result in inflated credit hours, the improper designation of full-time student status, and the over-awarding of Title IV funds," the office concluded in its letter to the commission's president, Sylvia Manning.

More important, the office reported that the commission had allowed American InterContinental University to become accredited in 2009 despite having an "egregious" credit policy.

In a letter responding to the commission, Ms. Manning wrote that the inspector general had ignored the limitations the accreditor had placed on American InterContinental to ensure that the institution improved its standards, an effort that had achieved the intended results, she said. "These restrictions were intended to force change at the institution and force it quickly."

Harris N. Miller, president of the Career College Association, which represents more than 1,400 private and mostly for-profit institutions, said the inspector general's report was "silly" and missed the point that Ms. Manning raised in her response: whether or not the accreditor's actions actually forced change at the institution.

That's what the department and Congress and taxpayers should be worried about," he said.

While the Education Department is unlikely to carry out the inspector general's recommendation to suspend or terminate the commission's status as a gatekeeper of federal education aid, Mr. Miller said, that proposal will be a topic of discussion when the federal panel that reviews accreditors convenes later this year.

That 18-member panel, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, advises the education secretary on how well accreditors perform. The Higher Learning Commission is, in fact, scheduled to have its status reviewed by the panel this year.