Strange Bedfellows: Elizabeth Warren & The Wall Street Journal


June 18, 2015

By Mary Nguyen Barry

The Wall Street Journal released an exposé today on our stunningly defective higher education accreditation system.



Via public records requests, the Journal asked for accreditation reports on colleges with extremely low graduation rates. They found “evaluation” comments wholly unrelated to student outcomes:

  • For the University of Maine at Augusta, which hasn’t had a graduation rate above 20% since 2004, accreditors wrote: “Students consistently reported, ‘we love this place’…[due to the] caring and supportive faculty and staff.”
  • Accreditors failed to note that Bluefield State College in West Virginia has failed to have a graduation rate above 25% since 2006. Instead, they noted that the new electronic signs on campus might be difficult for students to read while driving.

The most damning response came from the President of the Southern Association accrediting agency. When the Journal asked if a college with a 10% graduation rate can do a good job, Belle Wheelan said: “It can be a good school for those 10% who graduate.” She also said that accreditors don’t follow “bright lines” when assessing performance because students enter college with different levels of academic preparation, resources, and goals.

Well, it turns out there is a way to set bright line minimum standards for college performance — even when considering colleges with different levels of student preparation and resources. As our previous analysis found, 9 times out of 10, a college with a graduation rate below 15% falls in the bottom of peer colleges serving similar students with similar academic credentials. In other words, 9 times out of 10, a student can fare much better attending another institution.

Related: The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations Has No place in K-12 or Higher Education

Senator Elizabeth Warren nailed it at yesterday’s Senate HELP committee higher education accreditation hearing when she said:

[The Education Department] has power to cut off aid to fraudulent schools long before students are hurt and taxpayer dollars are wasted. If they don’t want taxpayers to pay for discharges when students get cheated, [department officials] should invest the time and resources early to make sure predatory schools never cheat those students in the first place.

That’s in line with what my colleague, Michael Dannenberg, and I previously recommended: minimum responsibility requirements for colleges to receive federal student financial aid dollars. We submit and The New York Times editorial page endorsed that under-resourced colleges ranking in the bottom five percent on graduation rates and default rates (15 percent and 28 percent, respectively) be given time and assistance to improve, but soon thereafter, absent improvement, be barred from receiving additional financial aid dollars. Students and taxpayers cannot be harmed indefinitely.

Related: Preventing the Next Corinthian, by Michael Dannenberg

Since there clearly seems to be a lack of interest, engagement, and will among the accreditors, we need more voices – like Senator Warren’s (D-MA), Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), and Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) – at the federal level to push the U.S. Department of Education to embrace precisely the bright line, Tough Love standards that our higher education system desperately needs.

None of us can afford any more Corinthians.