Under Pressure, Groups that Assess Colleges Promise to take a Closer Look at Graduation Rates

The rising number of students who have dropped out of college saddled with debt has increased pressure on the groups that give colleges the official stamp of approval. Now those accreditation groups are promising to crack down by taking a closer look at graduation rates, loan repayment rates and default rates.

The Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions announced Wednesday that it would “pay special attention” to four-year institutions with graduation rates below 25 percent and two-colleges whose rates dip under 15 percent. Those rates are half the national average for first-time, full-time students.

The Council represents the seven main federally recognized organizations that evaluate higher education institutions and try to ensure that they are meeting a certain standard of academic quality. Together the regional groups oversee more than 2,400 institutions.

Universities and colleges don’t have to be accredited to operate, but without accreditation they lose access to crucial federal funding (such as Pell grants for low-income students) as well as to state financial aid programs. Students usually cannot transfer class credits earned at a non-accredited college.

Related: There’s finally federal data on low-income college graduation rates – but it’s wrong

The group noted, however, that it would not look solely at graduation rates, since the number of students and the transfer rates often affect a college’s numbers. It also criticized the federal government for unreliable data, noting that publicized graduation rates vary up to 25 percent, depending on which federal website a school is listed on.

It has long been difficult to get an accurate measure of how many students who receive Pell grants, which go to low-income students, are getting degrees.

Related: There’s finally data on low-income college graduation rates – but it’s wrong

A sizable number of the colleges that will come under review include community colleges, historically black colleges and universities (HCBUs), and other minority-serving institutions, which often enroll a disproportionate number of poor and academically struggling students.

“The intent here is to ensure that each institution – including those serving higher education’s most vulnerable students – is doing its best to promote student success,” said Barbara Brittingham, chair of C-RAC and president of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, New England Association of Schools and Colleges, in a press release distributed Tuesday.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Higher Education.

Meredith Kolodner

Meredith Kolodner is a staff writer. She previously covered schools for the New York Daily News and was an editor at InsideSchools.org and for The Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. She’s also covered housing, schools, and local government for the Press of Atlantic City and The Chief-Leader newspaper and her work has appeared in the New York Times and the American Prospect. Kolodner is a graduate of Brown University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and an active New York City public school parent.