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Playing Defense at the Nation's Largest Regional Accreditation Agency

Published:  May 27, 2010

In December, the U.S. Department of Education’s Inspector General (IG) called on the Department to consider terminating the authority of the nation’s largest regional accreditation agency because it had accredited a major chain of for-profit universities despite findings that raised serious questions about the quality of training the institution was providing. Since then, officials at the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools have been vigorously fighting back, arguing that the IG seriously misrepresented their actions.

At issue was the commission’s decision last May to give “full initial accreditation without limitation” to the Career Education Corporation’s American Intercontinental University (AIU) despite concluding that the school had significantly -- and, in the words of the commission’s reviewers, “egregiously” -- inflated the course credits it was providing to its large population of online students. The IG, in a blistering report in December, said that the agency’s action called “into question whether the accrediting decisions made by HLC should be relied upon by the Department of Education, when assisting students to obtain quality education through the Title IV [student aid] programs.”

In her official response, which the IG released this week as part of its final report on the case (starting on p.19), Sylvia Manning, the commission’s president, said she disagreed “profoundly with the conclusions drawn by the Inspector General’s team.” She particularly blasted the IG for suggesting that the agency had not placed “conditions and limitations” on AIU in reaction to the findings. Manning wrote that, among other things, the commission had required the school to conduct a self-study on the awarding of credit hours in preparation for a focused site visit from the agency in the 2010-11 academic year. The accreditor also required the institution to seek the commission’s approval before starting any new degree programs or sites. “These restrictions were intended to force change and to force it quickly,” she stated.

Career Education Corporation has, in fact, recently changed its policy, cutting the credits it awards for AIU's online classes in half – from 9 to 4.5 credits per course. This shows, she argued, that  “the Commission’s approach works":

The Commission’s evaluation team identified a significant problem with the awarding of academic credit in a small percentage of online upper-division courses offered by the institution. The team outlined a regime of monitoring to result in prompt remediation of the problem. A Commission evaluation team has been on campus this winter to ensure that prompt action is indeed being taken by the institution to ameliorate the problem. The online upper-division students of AIU attending an institution with a twenty-year history of regional accreditation will be benefiting from this change, which, with the Commission’s intervention, might not have taken place or at least not as quickly.

But the IG does not buy Manning’s explanation, and at Higher Ed Watch, neither do we.

For one thing, there is little evidence to suggest that HLC would have demanded a prompt response from AIU had the IG not intervened. Had the commission really wanted to “force change,” the most effective approach would have been to threaten to put limits on the school’s existing programs. And it certainly would not have delayed a follow-up visit to the school until the 2010-11 school year. While the commission ultimately did send a team to the institution this winter, it did not schedule the trip until “after we initiated this inspection and discussed our preliminary concerns regarding AIU with HLC,” the IG reports. In other words, while the commission made a last minute scramble to cover its tracks, the real impetus for change appears to have come from the IG itself.

In addition, it is not clear that the condition that the commission put on AIU to seek prior approval before starting new programs had anything to do with trying to "force change" at the school. In fact, the IG assert that this is simply a “standard” condition that HLC places on the colleges it accredits, and not “a unique stipulation related to AIU’s credit assignment problems.” According to the IG, “all institutions accredited by HLC are required to receive approval from HLC to extend their accreditation to include program offerings at a new degree level, significant new academic programs or majors that require substantial financial investment or reallocation of financial resources, degree programs offered through distance delivery methods, and off-campus instruction sites providing degree programs.”

[The IG also disputes Manning’s claim that it had found problems with only “a small percentage” of AIU’s online courses:  “Our review of AIU’s 2009 online catalog indicates that all of the online, upper-division classes, representing 67 percent of all online undergraduate courses, were offered in the 9-credit format.”]

Moreover, it is unclear whether the changes AIU made to its credit policies are real or just cosmetic. A spokesman for Career Education Corporation told our former colleague Ben Miller of the Quick and the Ed blog that although school officials had changed their credit policies, they did not make significant changes to the academic content in those courses “because we felt very comfortable and proud about the content that was included.” In some cases, the school apparently simply split the courses in two. But, as Miller wrote, this is problematic because if HLC reviewers felt that the original courses didn’t merit nine credits then “dividing the course roughly in two would not merit a duo of 4.5 credit courses.” We share these concerns and hope that the IG will follow up to assess the changes.

While Manning sees this case as showing that “the Commission’s approach works,” we see this as yet another example of the failure of accrediting agencies, both regional and national, to police the giant and highly-profitable for-profit higher education companies they are trying to attract and keep as members. This is especially a concern at the Higher Learning Commission, which in recent years has become a magnet for proprietary schools seeking to become regionally accredited [and whose former president, Steven Crow, is now a consultant to Corinthian Colleges, according to this Bloomberg.com article].

As we’ve said before, the IG has sent a wake up call to accreditors. Unfortunately, given Manning’s response, they don’t appear to be getting the message.

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