New Transparency Cracks Open ‘Black Box’ of Accreditation

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This week, the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) published a letter ordering William Loveland College in Colorado to “show cause why its accreditation should not be withdrawn.” The school, which converted from for-profit to nonprofit status in 2015, made a series of substantive changes over the last few years–moving its location, changing its name, opening an MBA offering, closing another program–even while it saw low enrollment. DEAC–which is currently up for re-recognition to remain an accreditor–noted in the letter that, given the noncompliance with its standards, the institution needs to provide more information about the school’s financial stability, plus submit a teach-out plan to help students complete their courses in the event that the school closes.

But while the public might have known the school was placed on a show cause status and when, it’s only because of a new policy that we now know what that means and why it happened. Starting this week, accrediting agencies are reporting to the Education Department and the public, using common definitions, the actions they’ve taken with respect to the institutions they review and approve (such as placing them on probation or withdrawing accreditation from a college). And better yet, they’re posting the decision letters for those actions online, for the world to see.

This is no small feat. Accrediting agencies, with few exceptions, are notoriously opaque about the steps they take to oversee and penalize institutions. To make matters worse, a probation status from one accrediting agency might mean a college is just shy of losing accreditation altogether, but might be a much less egregious action from another accreditor. And even where they publish the already-required basic updates of accreditation statuses for every school, the agencies usually leave out any of the details that might be useful to policymakers, state authorizers, licensure bodies, other accrediting agencies, students, or families, all of whom have a stake in knowing what risks exist at an institution.

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