Access to college accreditation reports

Jane Newshound was at it again. As the star reporter of The Mudslinger, the student newspaper of Bliss College, an elite private university, she was investigating the university’s library.

Not too long ago, friends told her that they noticed several periodicals the school once had were missing. After several short interviews, in which the collective response was “nothing has changed,” Jane decided to obtain the library records.

The administration of Bliss College would have none of that. A private school, as Jane quickly learned, does not have to show such records to the public. Bliss College thought it had Jane pinned. Fortunately for Jane, and all student journalists put in the same position, the school was required to make one document available to her upon request: an “accreditation report.”

Role of accrediting agencies in higher education

All colleges and universities that participate in any federal financial aid program, such as the Stafford Loan, the Pell Grant or the federal College Work-Study program, are usually required by federal law to be accredited by a “nationally recognized accrediting agency or association.” See 20 U.S.C. § 1141(a) (defining what an “institution of higher education” is for purposes of federal financial assistance programs).

There are several of these “national accrediting associations,” each with a certain geographic or subject specialty. For example, the American Bar Association is the national accrediting association for all law schools in the United States. The major accrediting associations for colleges and universities are the six “regionals.” All institutions, whether they offer associate, bachelor1s, master1s or doctorate degrees, must be accredited by the agency covering its region.

The regional accrediting agencies are non-profit organizations that evaluate colleges and universities based on certain defined criteria. According to one agency brochure, regional accreditation “does not affirm that the school is perfect in all aspects, but does promise that there are resources, leadership, and determination that will be utilized for improvement.” The six regional agencies are the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

The right to obtain the accreditation report

In an effort to provide students access to as much information about a school as possible, Congress has long required that all colleges and universities that participate in a federal financial assistance program show any current student or prospective student, on demand, any “documents describing the institution’s accreditation, approval, or licensing.” See 20 U.S.C. § 1092(a)(1)(J) and 34 C.F.R. § 668.44(b) (which should be read together). The idea is that an informed student is more likely to make the best decision on where to go, which will make him more likely to get a good job, which will in turn make it more likely he will not default on his student loans.

The key thing to understand is that the law applies to private, as well as public, schools which receive federal financial assistance. So, while most records in the possession of a private school are not required to be disclosed under state public records laws, accreditation reports are required to be disclosed under federal law. This may be a powerful check on those private schools that keep their records close to the vest.

Student journalists attending public schools will also find a school’s accreditation report packed with useful information. Even though most of the information that makes up an accreditation report would be available under a state open records law, an accreditation report puts all of the material in one source along with useful analysis and useful graphics or other aids. And obviously, it saves the time and effort required to gather all of the records in the first place.

Student reporters who desire to obtain a copy of their schools’ reports should keep a few things in mind. Many schools, especially smaller private schools, may be unaware of their obligations under this law. It may be up to you to educate administrators about their legal obligations.

Be sure to obtain a copy of the statute, which can be found in the United States Code, available in most university libraries and all law school libraries, and take it with you when you ask for the report. Remind the schools that refusing to turn over the records is a violation of federal law, which could lead to the school losing all of its federal assistance.

A good place to start your search is at your school’s library where some institutions routinely place a copy of accreditation reports. If that proves unsuccessful, your next step should be the university’s registrar’s office. Although the report may not be there, the registrar can usually point you in the right direction. Try to get the administration to do your leg work. If one office has a suggestion as to where the report is, get them to call the other office before you walk a quarter of a mile.

Once you locate the report, try to get the administration to give you a copy. Although the law only requires that they allow you to inspect their report, emphasize that it will save both of you several hours in the future if you have your own copy and do not have to keep begging them to see theirs.

Using accreditation reports

Before you begin to thumb through an accreditation report, be sure to note who actually wrote the document you have. There are two common types of reports that assess the quality of a school. The one you want is the evaluation conducted by the accrediting association, which will give you a candid look at the condition of your school. The other type of report is called the “self-study” or the “periodic review.” This is the report written by the school, sometime between evaluations, which discusses how the school has responded to the last evaluation. Although useful, the “self-study” is typically less objective than the evaluation.

The typical accreditation report will cover, in the minutest of detail, how a school is doing in certain areas. For example, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) evaluates colleges in six categories. The SACS looks at educational programs, faculty, educational support services (such as libraries and computer services), administration, financial resources, and physical resources (for example, buildings, safety on campus and planning). Although a typical accreditation report is about 100 pages, some schools have multi-volume reports of thousands of pages in length.

For the student reporter on the prowl for a new lead, the uses of the accreditation report are innumerable, and no attempt will be made here to discuss all of them. With that in mind, a review of four accreditation reports obtained from Washington, D.C.-area schools turned up many possible story ideas.

For example, one report obtained from a community college revealed that the school has been on permanent censure by the American Association of University Professors for the past twenty years because it does not grant tenure to any faculty as a matter of policy. The question could be asked: what does this mean to the school, especially in regards to attracting quality faculty to the school?

Another report at a large public college categorized the devastating effects that state budget cuts had on the school, and then offered some solutions. Since the report was five years old, an enterprising reporter could take those solutions and see how many have been implemented. A large private school was criticized in its report for creating a “wish-list” of future plans without discussing the costs of such plans. A student reporter may want to inquire about future tuition increases or increased class-size at that institution.

Besides the voluminous text, many accreditation reports include interesting graphs. For example, some reports use charts to compare the holdings of the library. One private university compared its library holdings with a “market basket” of similar private universities. Some reports include the number of faculty, broken down by race, ethnicity, and gender. Others compare faculty salaries with other schools. Such information may be useful to denote trends at your school. For example, one report showed that a large public school suffering state budget cuts had an overall decrease in faculty, but a somewhat surprising increase in women faculty.

Finally, some reports even include a copy of the school’s anticipated future budgets. A school may include its budget to show that it plans on increasing spending in those areas that the evaluators have previously criticized. Although the budget is a public record at public schools, the “self-study” may be the only place a student reporter at a private college can obtain such information.

After slogging through the 500-page accreditation report, Jane Newshound now had Bliss College pinned. The report severely criticized the school a year earlier for reducing its periodicals by one third, and cutting its new acquisitions in half. Further analysis by Jane revealed that the library budget had been cut in order to pay for a new fleet of automobiles for the board of trustees. Now, Jane had a story, and the administrators could not stop blaming each other.