“Don’t waste your time and money. If that degree isn’t from an accredited school, potential employers won’t care that you have it,” advises G.I. Jobs, a website dedicated to giving guidance to veterans.

“Attending a school that is not accredited at all can mean leaving your education and your future up to chance. Schools that are not accredited are held to few or no standards or regulations,” says the University of Louisville’s online programs site.

And if you want federal financial aid to go to college, the institution you attend must be accredited, or else it can’t receive federal financial aid.

So is accreditation a good mark of quality?

It turns out that’s not so clear. At least not according to a recently released report from Stig Leschly, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School and CEO of College101, a nonprofit advocacy and research organization, and Yazmin Guzman, a research and data analyst with College101. The study offers significant reasons to be doubtful of accreditation’s value to students.

Start with the fact that of the 10 standards that federal policy dictates accreditors monitor, only one pertains to outcomes. The others pertain to inputs, such as an institution’s faculty, curricula, and facilities. These might or might not cause students to get great outcomes — or even correlate to outcomes.

A Wall Street Journal analysis of colleges that have lost their accreditation finds that “Nearly 350 out of more than 1,500 four-year colleges now accredited…have a lower graduation rate or higher student-loan default rate than the average among the colleges that were banished by the same accreditors since 2000.”

Mr. Leschly’s and Ms. Guzman’s new report, titled “Oversight of Academic Quality and Student Outcomes by Accreditors of US Higher Education,” adds fuel to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s famous quip that, “For the most part, accreditation agencies are watchdogs that don’t bite.”

It also represents one of the only deep dives into the disciplinary actions that accrediting agencies take. Among its findings was the reality check that “low graduation rates, high loan default rates, and low median student earnings did not increase the likelihood that an accreditor would take disciplinary action towards a college.”

In other words, no matter how bad the student outcomes at an institution, accreditors were not more or less likely to discipline them. So much for accreditors holding schools to standards to protect students.

What’s more, only 11% of the 5,195 colleges in the report’s sample from the years between 2012 and 2021 experienced one or more disciplinary actions related to student outcomes or academic program quality. Of these, 64% were small, certificate-granting institutions, mainly beauty and barber schools.

That might be fine if colleges were producing great outcomes, but they aren’t. At public colleges, 38% of students don’t graduate within six years. It’s not much better at non-profit, private institutions where 32% don’t graduate from a four-year program within 6 years.

At the bottom-income quartile, those outcomes are even worse, as the graduation rate stands at just 11%.

Yet, of the disciplinary actions that accreditors levied against colleges, only 2.7% were for inadequate student outcomes or low-quality academic programming. According to the report, “The other 97.3 percent of formal oversight activity by accreditors was supportive of colleges or focused on non-academic matters (governance, finances, general compliance, etc.).”

This isn’t an academic matter. The colleges the report examined receive roughly $112 billion in federal financial aid each year. In other words, accreditors aren’t helping students funnel their federal financial aid dollars—which often come in the form of loans that, theoretically at least, should be repaid—to programs that are of higher quality.

Indeed, only 2% of the 13.9 million students overseen by regional accreditors attend colleges that were disciplined for poor academic quality or low student outcomes. To be fair to the accreditors, they weren’t created to monitor student outcomes. They were, instead, membership organizations that operated to support colleges with self-improvement.

In 1965, however, Congress tasked them with becoming the gatekeeper for federal dollars for all of higher education. What seems clear is whether for conflict-of-interest reasons—they still operate as membership organizations—or because they were never built to monitor student outcomes, accreditors just weren’t built to bite.

For many institutions, accreditors undoubtedly help — and not just by assisting them in gaining access to federal dollars. Their feedback and advice likely help certain schools reflect and improve. Yet, they aren’t great gatekeepers. It’s time to stop giving students bad advice as they seek to make good educational choices.

This piece was originally published in The New York Sun here.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.