Rising tuition costs and the uncertain job market have left many students worried about the ultimate value of a college degree. Partially in response to the changing environment of higher education, some accrediting agencies are redesigning guidelines for accreditation, which may lead to the accreditation of several institutions being in jeopardy.

The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) was the first of the six regional accrediting agencies in the United States to redesign their guidelines. The new guidelines include requirements that an institution maintain a “significant presence” in the agency’s region, as well as a requirement that universities track the success of their adult students, data that most institutions do not  capture.    

Ashford University, a for-profit institution owned by Bridgepoint Education, has been mentioned in news items as being affected by these rule changes. Recently, WASC announced it was denying initial accreditation to Ashford.

In a public statement regarding Ashford’s denial of accreditation, WASC cited insufficient full-time faculty, high student turnover rate, and lack of student support as the primary reasons for the denial of accreditation. Ashford’s administration said they felt “disappointed” with the decision, and plan to simultaneously appeal and re-apply for WASC accreditation.

To add to Ashford’s worries, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCACS), the organization that currently accredits Ashford University, has given the institution one month to prepare a document demonstrating that they meet the organization’s criteria for accreditation. In an official statement, Ashford reported feeling they were in “substantial compliance” with NCACS’s guidelines and plans to be fully cooperative with the accrediting agency’s requests.

Not limited to the for-profit sector, private institutions are being affected by these stricter guidelines as well. West Virginia’s Mountain State University (MSU) faces the loss of its NCACS accreditation. The accrediting agency cited the loss of accreditation of MSU's nursing program, lax oversight by university administrators, and insufficiently credentialed faculty as reasons for this decision. MSU leadership reported that they were “disappointed” with the outcome.  MSU felt the accrediting agency ignored efforts the university has undertaken to correct problems since they were placed on probation a year ago, and administrators say they will appeal the decision.

Most interestingly, California's largest institution, the City College of San Francisco (CCSF), has been informed by WASC that if they do not find solutions to their ongoing financial and administrative woes within the next nine months, they will lose accreditation, and in turn, lose access to federal financial aid. The accrediting agency has forgone placing the college on probation, instead enacting more serious measures. This situation is particularly dire because other area institutions would have trouble absorbing the CCSF's 90,000 students.

Many following the case deem City College of San Francisco “ too big to fail” and speculate that their closure is unlikely; however, all agree that the college’s dire situation will require aggressive action.

Ultimately, the higher education environment is changing, and the US's accrediting agencies are responding by tightening regulations in an effort they claim will increase transparency and accountability in the nation's universities. Only time will tell the impact this will have on the higher education nationwide, but it will be interesting to watch as it plays out.