Verifying the legitimacy of institutions of higher learning in the United States is a sort of trickle-down affair. Unlike in many countries the United States Department of Education doesn’t say whether or not a college is valid. Colleges and universities must be accredited by an Education Department-recognized body in order for students to take advantage of federal grants and loans.
Well maybe that system doesn’t work quite so well. According to an article by Melissa Korn in the Wall Street Journal:
The [Education Department] inspector general’s office found that the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools granted accreditation to a for-profit university despite what investigators considered the school’s questionable practices in awarding credit hours to students.
The trouble is that there’s something of a conflict of interest involved in accrediting agencies. Not just at HCL but everywhere agencies get their funding from the schools they evaluate. According to the article colleges pay the agencies to “evaluate educational activities, financial stability, governance and administrative structure.” They tend not to be terribly critical and it takes a lot of problems before any accreditor will actually remove its seal of approval.
Kevin Carey wrote an article about precisely this problem back in the March/April issue of the Monthly.