USDE issues “Dear Colleague” letter to accrediting organizations and updates on other federal issues

Publication Number 53 May 5, 2016


On April 22, 2016, U.S. Department of Education (USDE) Under Secretary Ted Mitchell sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to USDE-recognized accrediting organizations, clarifying the flexibility they have in accreditation reviews. The letter speaks to and emphasizes 1) flexibility, 2) differentiated reviews based on differing conditions and 3) student achievement and accreditor effectiveness.

Of particular significance, USDE is looking for accrediting organizations to focus their resources on the institutions that present the greatest risk. Accreditors are being asked to emphasize student learning outcomes such as graduation, retention, and job placement rates that USDE believes to be most relevant to ensure quality. In addition, the letter speaks to specific authority that accreditors have to develop tiers of accreditation. The letter also encourages regional accrediting organizations “to consider whether additional metrics of student achievement that are accurate and effective can contribute to their standards, urging accreditors that do not have completion or job placement rate metrics to add such a standard.

The letter stated that, as part of recognition, USDE will compare accreditors against other accrediting organizations, noting “If most of a similarly situated group of accreditors has adopted a particular measure of student achievement but one agency has not, the Department might question the effectiveness of that agency relative to its peers.” Accreditors are expected to provide to USDE their decision letters, e.g., termination of accreditation or placing an institution or program on probation or equivalent status.

The letter stressed that USDE views an accrediting organization’s prompt reporting of any problems it finds with any institutions or programs it accredits to be an important factor in evaluating that accreditor’s reliability. While such reports are required under current regulation, the letter states “The number of reports of such issues from accreditors is far smaller than the number of such issues identified through other Department processes or by other sources outside the Department” and added, “It would be expected that accreditors would find many of the same indicators as the Department.”

Judith Eaton, President of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), said the guidance represents a major and expanding federal presence in accreditation, as part of a major restructuring of the relationship between the federal government and accreditation.” She stated, “CHEA is interested in a balance of accreditation’s responsibilities. We want to sustain the independence of accrediting organizations while working with the federal government.”


A group of 24 Senate Democrats sent a letter to Secretary of Education John King on April 22, 2016, urging USDE to “strengthen its review process of accrediting agencies to ensure that the colleges they accredit are providing a quality education to students.” The group describes the letter as the first in a series of college accountability efforts.

The letter complimented USDE’s agenda of transparency and outcomes for accrediting organizations, announced in November 2015 (see Federal Update #50) and noted that when accreditors fail to enforce standards concerning student learning and student retention and completion they are failing to protect students. The letter cites Government Accountability Office reports from 2014 and 2011 and news coverage questioning accreditation’s effectiveness as evidence of the need to enforce rigorous reviews of accrediting organizations. “Accreditors that have significantly failed to live up to their responsibilities do not deserve to serve as gatekeepers to federal funds and should not be recognized by the Department,” the letter urges.

Seven members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee signed the letter, including Ranking Member Patty Murray. Tom Carper (D-Delaware) and Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) who have been have been investigating for-profits and accreditation, and Richard Durbin (D-Illinois), the Assistant Democrat leader in the Senate, also signed the letter.


On April 21, 2016, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon ruled that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) overstepped its authority and denied the bureau’s request for documents from the Accrediting Commission for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS). In August 2015, the CFPB sought letters and testimony from ACICS as part of an investigation into possible unlawful actions and practices in connection with accrediting for-profit colleges, in violation of the Higher Education Act or any other federal consumer financial law. ACICS had filed suit to block the CFPB investigation.

Judge Leon stated in his opinion that “the accreditation process simply has no connection to a school’s private student lending practices.” He went on to say that CFPB’s requests “clearly reveal its investigation targets the accreditation process generally. This the CFPB was never empowered to do.” He added, “Thus, having concluded that the CFPB lacks authority to investigate the process for accrediting for-profit schools, I am compelled to deny its petition to enforce civil investigative demand.”

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and five accrediting organizations filed an amicus brief concerning the dispute between CFPB and ACICS. The amicus brief stated that CFPB’s actions exceeded its own jurisdiction, and intrude upon the jurisdiction of USDE and argued, “CFPB’s efforts to investigate ACICS will not only impact that body, but will greatly impact all accrediting bodies in the field.”