Access to college accreditation reports
A university’s accreditation report can provide a wealth of information for student reporters. The report is especially useful at private universities, where it is one of the few documents that the schools are required to make available.
ROLE OF ACCREDITING AGENCIES IN HIGHER EDUCATION
Although colleges can operate without being accredited, there are powerful incentives to obtain accreditation. To participate in a federal financial aid program, such as the Stafford Loan, the Pell Grant or the federal College Work-Study program, colleges must be accredited by a "nationally recognized accrediting agency or association." See 20 U.S.C. § 1001(a) (defining what an "institution of higher education" is for the purposes of federal financial assistance programs).
There are six "regional accrediting associations" that can accredit an entire college or university, as well as dozens of other “national accrediting associations” with subject-matter specialties. (For example, the American Bar Association is the national accrediting association for all law schools in the United States.)
The regional accrediting agencies are nonprofit organizations that evaluate colleges and universities based on certain measures and standards of quality. 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."
For a list of the regional and national accreditation agencies, visit the U.S. Department of Education’s website.
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. § 668.43(b) (which should be read together). The idea is that an informed student is more likely to obtain a good education and become successfully employed, and therefore be able to repay federally backed student loans.
The law applies to private, as well as public, schools that receive federal financial assistance. So, while most records in the possession of a private school are not covered by state public records laws, accreditation reports are required to be disclosed under federal law. This may be a powerful check on 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 place, along with useful analysis, graphics and tables.
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 not be aware of their obligations under this law. It may be up to you to educate administrators about their disclosure responsibilities.
Be sure to bring a copy of the statute 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 website or library. 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 legwork. 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 asking them to see theirs.
USING ACCREDITATION REPORTS
First, 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 more useful is the evaluation conducted by the accrediting association, which provides an outsider’s candid look at the condition of the school. The other type of report is called the "self-study" or the "periodic review." This is the report written by the school itself, 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.
If you aren’t sure whether your institution has been reaccredited recently, a good way to check is simply by looking at the regional accrediting agency for Public Disclosure Statements (or Public Disclosure Notices) announcing recent accreditation decisions.
For the student reporter on the prowl for a new lead, the uses of the accreditation report are innumerable. 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 had been on permanent censure by the American Association of University Professors for the past 20 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.
Accreditation reports are a vast source of data about trends such as graduation rates, student racial diversity, employee turnover and the number of courses taught by adjuncts or graduate assistants as opposed to professors. So even if the report is several years old — accreditation generally occurs on a cycle of between six and 10 years — the data can be useful for a “trend story” looking at whether the college is making gains or backsliding.
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.
A college, or some program or unit of the college, might be placed on “provisional accreditation,” a probationary status that requires certain improvements. That is often a red flag of financial instability. Journalists should try to obtain all of the correspondence between the institution and the accrediting agency — especially copies of any improvement plans and schedules — to keep watch on the institution’s progress.