And now the critics are counting on accreditors to clean up the problems. The U.S. Education Department has issued new regulations to keep distance educators in check, and has pressured the groups that accredit colleges and universities to keep a tighter rein on those that offer online courses. Members of Congress blame accreditors for lax oversight of online programs that have engaged in alleged fraud and deception.
Accreditors counter that they are adapting to the fast-growing world of online education by requiring colleges to prove that students learn as much in distance courses as in face-to-face classes. Doubts about the merit of online education are less about quality and more about the business practices of for-profit colleges, the accreditors say. Because of that, they argue, their agencies are being asked to regulate issues outside their domain.
"What appears to be happening is that policy makers are asking accreditors to do things that they traditionally have not been doing," says Michale S. McComis, executive director of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, a national organization that accredits about 800 private, for-profit institutions. "The Department of Education has a role to play, states have a role to play, and we have a role to play," he says. "Accreditation is not the only line of defense."
Accreditation of online courses has evolved as such programs have grown from a small niche in higher education to a staple at both nonprofit and for-profit colleges. The current tensions are just the latest surrounding the academic-accreditation process, which has involved a patchwork of accrediting groups and competing interests since it took root, in the late 19th century. Accreditation sets basic standards of academic quality, and then peer-reviewers assess whether colleges are meeting those standards, which vary by the type of accrediting agency. There are now six regional accrediting groups, which oversee a wide range of institutions, including community colleges, research universities, and for-profit colleges. There are also seven national accreditors that focus on a particular type of institutional mission, such as the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges and the Distance Education Training Council, which accredits only colleges that offer most of their courses online. Regulatory requirements for accreditation increased with the college-enrollment booms that followed World War II, further complicating the process. In particular, the 1965 Higher Education Act made students' eligibility for federal student aid contingent upon their colleges' accreditation.
When online learning got under way, in the 1990s, the attitude of most accrediting groups was to treat it like something completely different from classroom learning, says Philip A. Schmidt, associate provost for compliance and accreditation at Western Governors University. The private, nonprofit, all-online university, which began offering courses to a few hundred students in 1999, now enrolls more than 25,000 students from across the country and is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, one of the six regional accrediting agencies, and also by the Distance Education Training Council.
When online learning "was something very new, 15 years ago, we thought, Whoa, we need to look at this," says Sylvia Manning, president of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. The regional accrediting group counts all but a few of the nation's largest for-profit colleges among its member institutions.
The six regional accrediting agencies responded to the early growth of distance education by adopting in 2001 a common set of broad standards meant to determine if a college is well suited to offer online courses and if it is using the best practices to deliver them. Those guidelines, which were revised in 2006, recommend, for example, that colleges show evidence that faculty members who teach online courses have been appropriately trained to use the medium, and that student-support services are sufficient.
Until the past year, students were flocking to online education. Nearly a third of all students in higher education took at least one course online in 2009, according to an annual report of the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit group that studies and promotes online learning. As overall college enrollments grew 2 percent from 2008 to 2009, the number of students in online courses increased by 21 percent, the Sloan study found. Nearly two-thirds of the colleges surveyed—both for-profit and nonprofit—said online learning was a critical part of their strategic plans.
And with the growth of distance education, accreditors have begun to realize that online courses can be just as good, or as bad, as face-to-face courses, says Ms. Manning. Instead of focusing solely on the differences in the two settings, she says, accreditors are moving to consider what students are learning in both sectors. But many people still recognize that online education must improve in key areas of retention and graduation, says Thomas J. Snyder, president of Ivy Tech Community College, in Indiana, which has had a 60-percent increase in enrollment in online courses over the past five years. Ivy Tech, the state's public, two-year college system, has put in place extra assessments to determine whether students are prepared for the self-discipline and demands of online courses.
With large numbers of students dropping out of online programs, determining which students will succeed has become a widespread concern, says Mr. McComis, of the accrediting group for career colleges. "What we've always said ... is that online education is not for everybody."
As the number of online students has risen, so has the amount of federal student aid that is used to pay for distance education. The hundreds of for-profit colleges that rely heavily on online education receive nearly 90 percent of their revenue from federal student aid. And those funds do not include dollars paid through the G.I. Bill, which provides tuition benefits to veterans and their families, who are aggressively recruited by for-profit colleges. The growing amount of federal tax money paying for online education has attracted the attention of the Education Department and some members of Congress, who are concerned that for-profit colleges are putting profit ahead of educational quality.
In late 2009, the Education Department's Office of the Inspector General recommended limiting, suspending, or terminating the accrediting authority of North Central's Higher Learning Commission, which oversees colleges in 19 states in the middle of the country. The proposed penalties were the result of the commission's decision to accredit American InterContinental University, a for-profit college owned by the Career Education Corporation. The inspector general was concerned that some students who took some classes online were receiving too much credit for the short duration of the courses.
The inspector general's report sparked a Congressional hearing in June 2010—one of many held by Democrats to probe the practices of for-profit colleges and online education and accreditation—and a stricter new rule defining credit hours. Accreditors were also brought before Congress in August 2010, when an investigation by the Government Accountability Office alleged widespread abuses in the recruiting and enrollment of students at for-profit colleges.
There are signs that the stricter regulatory environment is having an impact. New-student enrollments at the 10 largest for-profit colleges were down an average of 14 percent this year, according to company financial disclosures and analysts' reports. And accreditors are starting to take a harder look at the business operations of for-profit colleges, in part to prevent even greater involvement by state and federal regulators.
The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, a national group that reviews more than 850 career-oriented colleges, has introduced an optional category of accreditation. It would require companies that own such colleges to demonstrate that they have adequate policies to prevent misbehavior. Under the new model, which is now a pilot program at two colleges, the council will look at the companies' strategic and financial planning and how they plan to maintain educational quality as enrollments grow.
The Western Association of Schools and Colleges, a regional accreditor, is considering far-reaching changes to allay concerns about Bridgepoint Education, a for-profit company that is seeking accreditation. Bridgepoint, which operates two small campuses in Colorado and Iowa, enrolls nearly all of its 80,000 students online. It has been called a "scam" by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, who cited because of its high dropout rate, low per-student spending, and eye-popping executive compensation. Ralph A. Wolff, president of the Western accrediting group, says Bridgepoint's finances will be independently audited. Bridgepoint did not respond to requests for comment. Western is considering making its accreditation reports public and requiring institutions to set actual benchmarks for retention and graduation.
Bridgepoint's Iowa campus was originally accredited by North Central's Higher Learning Commission, after the company bought a small, private nonprofit college in the state. The commission no longer automatically grants accreditation in such transactions. Last year, for example, it denied a request to transfer the accreditation of Dana College, a small, religiously affiliated college in Nebraska, to a group of private investors seeking to buy it. Dana has since closed.
Many people in the field think accreditation agencies are being burdened with issues beyond their reach. Accreditors have neither the staff nor the legal authority to conduct actual investigations. And accreditation reviewers are volunteers, usually from peer institutions, who are experts in higher education but not corporate malfeasance. There is widespread discussion about overhauling accreditation in the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, in 2013 at the earliest. Suggestions include no longer making accreditors the gatekeepers for federal financial student aid. That would, however, remove accrediting agencies' greatest leverage over institutions. Accreditation should primarily be about preserving and improving the quality of an education, while allegations of fraud and deception in disbursing financial aid should fall to federal regulators, says Ms. Manning, of the North Central accrediting group.
"One important thing to remember, which is often forgotten, is that it is not the case that accreditation is the only thing that stands between an institution and access to federal student financial aid," she says. "Accreditation is a gatekeeper but not the sole gatekeeper."