At a Senate hearing yesterday, members targeted the organizations that accredit for-profit colleges, again. The for-profit colleges may be to blame but proprietary schools expose the problems with an accreditation system that can’t seem to say no.

According to an article by Kelly Field in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

During Thursday’s hearing, Senate Democrats grilled the president of a major regional accreditor about its oversight of distance-education programs and raised doubts about accreditors’ capacity to evaluate billion-dollar multistate programs.

“I don’t think accrediting agencies have the wherewithal to do it,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and the chairman of the Senate education committee. “This is a whole different horse of a whole different color.”

In the United States colleges are eligible to receive federal funding if they’re accredited by agencies recognized by the Department of Education.

Thursday’s hearing was essentially an investigation of Ashford University, a for-profit college owned by Bridgepoint Education Inc.

Harkin characterized Ashford as “an absolute scam” for its low completion rate and per-pupil spending, combined with incredibly high executive compensation.

But the institution is eligible for federal financial aid (Bridgepoint earned more than $600 million from federal student aid in 2010) because the school remains accredited by a commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

According to Ashford, “accreditation by the commission provides assurance to prospective students that Ashford University has been found to meet the commission’s stated requirements and criteria.”

But that doesn’t really mean much. While NCACS also accredits such schools as the University of Wisconsin, the University of Michigan and Colorado State, the “stated requirements and criteria” are pretty weak.

As Education Sector’s Kevin Carey pointed out in an article he wrote for the Monthly a year ago,

The government exercises remarkably little oversight over the colleges and universities into which hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars are poured every year, relying instead on a tissue-thin layer of regulation at the hands of accreditors that are funded and operated by the colleges themselves. The result is chronic failure at hundreds of colleges nationwide…. The accreditation system is most egregiously failing the students who most need a watchdog looking out for their interests.

Accreditation basically just doesn’t work to ensure quality. This is true of both for-profit intuitions and real colleges. [Image via]

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer