Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell’s remarks to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity on June 22, 2016

Archived Information

Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell’s remarks to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity on June 22, 2016

As prepared – speaker will deviate from exact wording
June 22, 2016

Thank you, Susan, for your leadership on issues facing the field.  And thank you to all NACIQI members for your commitment to the critical work of reviewing accreditors with an eye on student outcomes.

I don’t have to tell you all about the importance of accreditation. Students and families rely on accreditors’ stamp of approval to make informed decisions about their education.  And the federal government depends on accreditors in deciding who can trusted with access to billions of dollars in taxpayer funded student aid.  For the most part, that trust is based on demonstrated commitment and ability. The majority of agencies work hard every day to evaluate the quality of their institutions, and they deserve our thanks. But the truth is that some agencies need to up their game, and, occasionally, agencies demonstrate such wide and deep failure that they simply cannot be entrusted with making the determinations we, you, and the public count on. The good news is this: Together, NACIQI and the Department can ensure that, once again, accreditation is a mark of quality without fail and without exception all across our nation.    

Before I continue I want to say a word about the recommendations before you today.  I know that you will be faced with some tough decisions, and I know that you will approach those questions with care.  I won’t speak to any of the Department’s specific recommendations because I want to let the staff recommendations to speak for themselves.  I do want to say that the staff have worked incredibly hard over the past several months to do a thorough review of all the agencies before you.  I want to thank Herman Bounds and the Accreditation Group, along with Sally Morgan, Jen Hong, and all the others involved in this work.  I fully support their analyses and the recommendations they have provided to you.  I trust that you will give their work full and thoughtful consideration.   

Ultimately, we need to continue to shift the focus to outcomes if we are going to ensure students receive the quality of education they expect and deserve.  High-quality post-secondary education programs should not exist as islands of excellence.  In every State, students should find a wealth of options to well-prepare for them for their future careers.  And they should feel confident that accreditation is one of many tools they can use to evaluate their options.  The only way to ensure the system works – to truly give us assurance that institutions are serving students well – is to have an accreditation process that allows the flexibility for innovation and the rigor to hold institutions accountable.  And the only way to do that is to focus on outcomes.  NACIQI and the Department share these goals, as evidenced by your 2012 and 2015 proposals.  Along with a few ideas of our own, we have put forward many of your ideas through our legislative proposals, and, in the face of Congressional inaction, have put many of them in place through executive action.  Over the last year:
We clarified that accreditors have the flexibility to focus their highest level of scrutiny on institutions that they determine to present high levels of risk to students.  Our guidance encouraged them to use that flexibility to focus their resources on higher risk or more problematic institutions.
We ourselves are employing a more risk-based process for the Department’s ongoing reviews of accreditors.  We pulled in new data and materials from across the Department to inform the review and recommendations.
We’ve asked that accreditors reframe the information they submit to us in a format that simpler and more uniform to help us – and the public – understand what’s going on with institutions.  
And we have called for greater transparency from accreditors. We’re adding to that transparency ourselves by posting accreditors’ standards related to student outcomes along with the performance of the institutions they accredit.
NACIQI has also requested greater information on accreditors’ outcomes for its pilot. Yesterday we publicly released the next generation of this information.   The Department has created dashboards of key institutional outcomes for each accreditor’s portfolio in an easy to digest format.
We and NACIQI have been traveling this road together. Your pilot effort on outcomes data is a major step forward.  It takes a little work to understand what the data mean, and how best to utilize them in the context of these discussions and the criteria for agency recognition.  At the end of the day, what is more important than how well students succeed in accessing and completing their education, with positive longer-term outcomes?  It’s clear to me how seriously you’re taking this charge, and we want to support you however we can. 

We also recognize that there’s a need to improve coordination and information sharing across the triad since protecting students is a shared responsibility. To meet this need:
We stepped up our communications with accreditors to make agencies more familiar with the resources available to help inform their own reviews.
And we are actively working with SHEEO to explore how to increase and improve information-sharing with state agencies in a similar way.

When we last gathered, I noted that accreditation was much on the nation's mind, and the work of the accreditation community has never been more important, which means that the work of NACIQI has never been more important.  This was true then, holds true now, and will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future.  The growing demand for higher education across the marketplace and the proliferation of providers of education challenge all of us – accreditors, NACIQI and the Department – to do everything in our power to strengthen accreditation and make it excellent without fail.  Never before has a post-secondary degree meant so much to so many.  Never before has there been such a need for prospective students to be informed investors in their own futures, empowered with accurate and timely information about institutions.  The landscape demands rigorous and focused on student outcomes in our approach to accreditation and in our broad attention to transparency.

To be clear: The push for accountability isn’t just for accreditors – it’s for all of us, including the Department and NACIQI, states and Congress.  Just as we hold institutions accountable, we have to hold ourselves accountable. That is why we continue to sharpen our efforts to create information, like the College Scorecard, why we built rules like Gainful Employment to protect students from programs that do not provide true access to middle class jobs, and that is why we have created our new Student Aid Enforcement Unit to complement the work done by our program compliance teams in rooting out bad actors.

We need your partnership in restoring trust in accreditation as a true and consistent indicator of quality.  When we see schools provide extremely poor outcomes for students – or even commit fraud – while maintaining accreditation, that is a black mark on the entire field.  The unfortunate reality is that not all institutions have students’ best interests at heart or are investing their resources in ways that maximize student success.  Accreditors should be the failsafe in these instances. But too often they have been asleep at the switch.  To be clear: I’m not painting all accreditors with same brush. The majority of agencies are working hard to evaluate the quality of their institutions, to celebrate successful schools, to help struggling institutions improve, and where necessary, remove accreditation from institutions that systematically fail their students. However, we know that some are not.  The presence of poor players taints the reputation of all accreditors and raises questions about the value of accreditation as a whole – that should be as troubling to the accreditation community as it is to us.  And it is why we have a responsibility to act.
We must continue to do all we can to ensure that accreditors are focused on the right things and effectively hold institutions accountable.  If they’re not, we have to make the hard decisions and take tough actions.  We have to think carefully through all the consequences for institutions and students and, at the end of the day, we must ensure that any accreditor receiving federal recognition is doing its job to protect students.  To do anything less is to sanction poor oversight and put even more students at risk.

Our students are counting on us.
This work isn’t easy.  I’m so appreciative of the commitment and hard work of everyone around this table, and for the tremendous work you have done to strengthen accreditation.  And I’m grateful for the tremendous leadership of Susan and Jen.  Our highest priority is to protect students and do whatever we can to ensure strong outcomes.  I’m grateful to be doing this work in partnership with you.