Summer Probations Raise the Question of When an Accreditor Should Disclose a College’s Status

Inside Higher Ed

by Rick Seltzer

On Aug. 23, the regional accreditor for New England announced that Lincoln College of New England had been placed on probation because it did not meet seven standards.

The college in Southington, Conn., had decided to stop enrolling new students, its interim president said in the same statement. It will close Dec. 31.

Lincoln had told faculty members and students on Aug. 20 that it had been placed on probation and would be closing. And an Aug. 11 Boston Globe article mentioned the for-profit college as one of three New England institutions that had presented information to their accreditor in June to argue why they should not be placed on probation.

But investors who were paying close attention knew much earlier that Lincoln had been flagged for possible probation.

Lincoln College of New England is a part of the publicly traded Lincoln Educational Services Corp. Its parent company disclosed in a May 15 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that Lincoln College of New England had been told the previous day to show cause why it should not be placed on probation.

That filing spelled out the process for the college going forward. It would have a chance to respond with evidence showing it was in compliance with standards of accreditation by June 13. Then it would have the opportunity to present its response in person at a June 28 commission meeting.

The responses proved unsuccessful. The accreditor’s commission voted at the June 28 meeting to place Lincoln on probation for not meeting standards on planning and evaluation; organization and governance; academic programming; students; teaching, learning and scholarship; institutional resources; and educational effectiveness.

Lincoln’s parent company disclosed that it had been placed on probation in another public filing for investorsdated Aug. 10. In other words, the college told investors about its probation case twice before it ever told students, although even they learned about the accrediting body’s decision nearly six weeks after it was made. It told shareholders about the accreditor’s action before the accreditor publicly posted about it.

“Lincoln met all the requirements to notify investors and students,” a spokesman for the college said.

The for-profit college’s case is especially noteworthy because it is closing and because it is part of a publicly traded company that’s required to tell shareholders about material events that could affect its stock price. It is not, however, unique — and this is not an issue only among for-profit institutions. It is one for nonprofits as well.

Weeks often pass between the day an accreditor places a college on probation and the day that probation is made public. In several cases this summer, accreditors and the institutions they approve only announced probationary actions days before key dates for enrolling students.

Disclosure practices are not standard across the board — both what is revealed, and when. Timing varies from case to case and between accreditors. Some accreditors’ policies and practices result in disclosure of a probation decision almost immediately. Others have effectively allowed the better part of two months to pass between vote and public notification.

That’s because some accreditors allow colleges and universities to appeal the vote placing them on probation on procedural grounds — and they don’t share news of that probation until the appeal is off the table. The setup prevents higher ed institutions from being harmed by news breaking about a probation that will later be struck from the record in the rare case of a probation being overturned.

But the rules surrounding appeals and disclosure are far from uniform. Not all accreditors allow for an appeal. Not all that do call an appeal an appeal.

The hodgepodge of terms and policies makes it difficult to compare accreditors’ actions in different regions. It also arguably prevents students and parents — the parties investing their time and money into colleges and universities — from having all of the information they might want when making decisions.

“The actions of accreditors can be complicated to interpret, but at the same time, the information should not be hidden: instead, it should be available as soon as possible so that a counselor, other regulator, or knowledgeable consumer is not kept in the dark,” Bob Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and former Obama administration official, said in an email.

Might a student deciding whether to enroll in a particular college or university this summer like to have known as soon as possible that it was being placed on probation?

“I see this all the time, these scenarios where there is a ton of wiggle room,” said Antoinette Flores, associate director for postsecondary education at the left-leaning think tank the Center for American Progress, who has written critically about accreditors’ practices in the past. “But the instances you’re describing to me seem like going above and beyond to protect the institution at the expense of the students. I think if there’s a problem, students should know, especially if they’re deciding to enroll in a college.”

Ask for Appeals First, Disclose Probation Later

This summer, the timelines for students who wanted to make informed decisions about attending some institutions would have been very, very tight. The accreditor for New England voted to place two private nonprofit colleges on probation at the same time it did Lincoln. Both the College of St. Joseph, in Rutland, Vt., and Newbury College, in Brookline, Mass., were placed on probation at the accreditor’s June 28 meeting for not meeting its standard on institutional resources. That could signal to students that they need to pay closer attention to the institutions’ financial viability.

St. Joseph notified students, faculty and staff Aug. 13, and the accreditor posted a statement on the action two days later. Tuition was due for full-time students on Aug. 13.

That timing was a coincidence, a college spokeswoman said. The college and its president tried to make an announcement as quickly as it could, she said.

“President Scott worked with the president of NEASC to release the announcement as soon as possible after receiving notification,” she wrote in an email, using the acronym for the New England accreditor’s former name. “It took a few days to draft the materials, and have NEASC review and approve. NEASC directed the timing of the announcement.”

In St. Joseph’s case, students and prospective students who were paying attention to the news had warning about the college’s financial situation, no matter what the accreditor announced. The college publicly weighed closing this spring amid enrollment shortfalls, budget deficits and a drawn-down endowment. Its Board of Trustees voted to remain open in May.

Newbury College, meanwhile, emailed students to tell them about its probation Aug. 9, three days after telling the accreditor if would not appeal its probation. The college sent letters to registered and deposited students that were postmarked no later than Aug. 13. The accreditor posted the probation announcement to its website Aug. 20.

Newbury had a fall deposit deadline of May 1 but operates under rolling admission with deposit deadlines every two weeks after that. One of those deadlines was Aug. 7, two days before Newbury announced its probation internally.

A spokesman said in an email that Newbury’s “deposit date becomes less important as August rolls on as students will need to meet their financial obligation for the fall semester.” Students could enroll for classes up until Sept. 11 this year. The spokesman declined to say when in the enrollment cycle most of the college’s students tend to enroll.

Newbury declined to release the accreditor’s report about the college’s probation. The spokesman provided a statement from Newbury’s president, Joseph Chillo, saying university leaders were making decisions to address the accreditor’s concerns. Those decisions include exploring real estate transactions to improve the college’s finances and strategic partnerships with other institutions. Chillo’s statement also pointed to a large freshman class and high retention rates as evidence of the college’s “level of success,” saying they speak volumes about Newbury’s student experience.

“A number of private colleges, both locally and nationally, are finding it necessary to explore new financial and collaboration models in today’s marketplace because of financial challenges,” Chillo’s statement said. “Newbury’s concern is a financial one, not one of academics or student experience. During the probation period, the college will work closely with NEASC and the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education to ensure a high-quality experience for our students.”

After Newbury College’s probation was announced, one commenter on Facebook said she considered enrolling there after the closure of another small private college in Massachusetts, Mount Ida College. Instead, she opted for the Wentworth Institute of Technology.

“Newbury College is on probation,” she wrote. “I thought of possibly going there after Mount Ida closed, as they were accepting all Mount Ida interior design students. I made the choice to go to WIT but I’m imagining where I would be right now if I decided to go to Newbury …”

The timing of this summer’s probation announcements at the New England accreditor was stretched out because of summer vacation schedules and the process of issuing joint press releases, said Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education.

Further, it is unusual for the accreditor to vote on probation in June, Brittingham said. The commission could have waited until the fall to vote but decided instead to act as soon as possible. The presidents at each institution seemed to take seriously the need to tell students about the probations.

“I think they felt a responsibility to let students know as soon as they could,” Brittingham said. “Was it later than parents or students would have hoped? I’m sure that’s true in some cases. But they really worked hard.”

The accreditor’s policy on the status of probation says that it makes probation public when the decision is final — after the institution being placed on probation does not appeal, or when the appeal process is completed and the decision is upheld. But the accreditor can make information about the probation public earlier “at its discretion.”

A college is placed on probation when its accreditor finds it fails to meet standards for accreditation. Probation signals serious concern from the accreditor. Colleges can be placed on probation for up to two years as they work to correct problems. If they cannot fix the issues in time, they can lose their accreditation — and access to federal student funding under Title IV of the Higher Education Act. Although it is rare for a college or university to forfeit Title IV funding, losing access is a likely death knell for most institutions.

Colleges, accreditors and regulators are under heightened scrutiny in the New England region in the wake of some institutions’ high-profile struggles. Discussions are already under way in Massachusetts about the extent to which regulators, accreditors and administrators should disclose a college’s problems.

After Mount Ida unexpectedly closed this spring, its board chair, Carmin Reiss, testified before a Massachusetts Senate Committee that the college’s accreditation reports made its financial challenges very clear. Accreditation documents and other audited financial reports were posted on the college’s website and were publicly available, although Mount Ida did not draw “specific attention” to them, Reiss said.

“I certainly reject the notion that we were deceptive,” Reiss said. “We made all the public disclosures that we needed to make, and we were honest with our community about our need to have a strategic plan and to build our financial health.”

Students testifying at the same hearing said they felt “betrayed, lost and heartbroken” and that “there are hundreds of students with thousands of dollars in school debt who don’t have a home for their academic future in the fall.”

Mount Ida went before the New England accreditor in April 2018 as part of its regular comprehensive evaluation. But it was never formally placed on probation. At meetings this week, the accreditor plans to evaluate ways it can strengthen its review of financially fragile institutions, according to Brittingham. It will also look at possible improvements to public disclosure.

The issue of when to notify students could easily come up in other regions. The accreditor for the West Coast, the WASC Senior College and University Commission, has a similar process to NECHE’s appeals process. WASC Senior College and University Commission-accredited institutions that are placed on probation can request a review of the action.

Under timelines spelled out in the accreditor’s handbook, the WASC commission must notify an institution within “approximately 14 calendar days” of a decision on probation or other sanction. Then the institution has 28 calendar days to decide whether to ask for a review. After a final decision is reached — after an institution decides not to request a review, or after that review is complete — the accreditor must notify several parties, including the public, within 30 days. That means the rules allow for as many as 72 days between an accreditor’s vote and a public disclosure, if a college chooses not to pursue an appeal process that would add even more time.

The WASC commission’s process played out this summer after it voted to place the Master’s University and Seminary of Santa Clara, Calif., on probation at its accreditation meeting June 29. The accreditor flaggedissues with board independence, personnel and management practices, operational integrity, and leadership. They included concerns that many members of the institution’s governing board were employed by the institution or another organization for which the president had authority; “a climate of fear, intimidation, bullying, and uncertainty”; an audit finding institutional aid awards exceeding typical amounts being awarded to friends and relatives; and some leaders lacking higher education experience and knowledge.

The accreditor sent a letter to the university’s president dated July 18 about the action. The university announced the probation on Aug. 16 with an email and posting on its website. It was four days before new students were scheduled to check in.

A statement from the institution’s Board of Directors said the accreditor’s primary concerns were not related to academic quality.

“WSCUC recognized and commended the excellence of the academic programs of the university and the seminary,” it said. “Rather, the areas of noncompliance primarily relate to issues of corporate governance and operational matters, which the TMUS Board of Directors is proactively addressing. During the probationary period, TMUS remains accredited and all forms of state and federal financial aid remain available to students.”

Leaders at the Master’s University and Seminary took the entire 28 days allowed under the accreditor’s guidelines to decide whether it would appeal. They also used the time to prepare for a follow-up meeting with the accreditor and to take steps toward addressing the accreditors’ concerns, they said. Students normally pay deposits well in advance of the dates in question, and classes started on Aug. 27, so the timing of announcements should not have trapped students into attending, they added.

“During that 28 days, we were already working toward compliance with what WASC was asking of us,” said Kevin Hill, vice president of administration. “It’s one thing to make an announcement that something is going on. We thought it much more beneficial to make an announcement along with steps that we’re already taking to address the issue. We thought that would be far more productive and welcome to our constituencies — to see that we had already jumped on this and were addressing WASC’s concerns.”

Whom Does Accreditation Serve?

The case and others like it highlight a fundamental tension at the heart of the accreditation process: Whom, exactly, is it intended to serve?

Colleges and accreditors will say a process allowing time between probation and public announcement is more collaborative between institution and accreditor — it helps institutions improve their practices and encourages those with problems to correct themselves. That, in turn, can help students.

“I fully support the way we do accreditation,” said John Stead, provost at the Master’s University. “They, in reality, have been a big help to us. Prior to this we had a 10-year accreditation, so we had not been visited for 10 years. This was really kind of a wake-up call for us in some areas. In the long run, it will really help us do a better job for our students.”

But in some cases, helping students might mean telling them when an institution is having problems.

“The process for notifying an institution and the public of a sanction reflects a balance between ensuring appropriate transparency for students and others while allowing for a fair appeal process for the institution,” said Jamienne S. Studley, president at the WASC Senior College and University Commission. “We regularly review our policies to assess whether we have struck a reasonable balance.”

What exactly constitutes a reasonable balance can change with time. A lengthy disclosure process that once seemed to protect students from undue worry might seem overly secretive and parental if students have started acting like consumers who want to be able to make informed decisions about where they’re spending their tuition dollars. It could also come to seem naïve if bad actors begin to find ways to exploit the system.

“How we balance the information to the public and due process here is the challenging thing,” said Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. “Would I turn around and change that overnight? No. I would not, because of the potential harm that could be done. I don’t know that a four- to six-week period of not knowing is going to harm the student. I really don’t. It’s a question I’m asking.”

Probation is not a status signifying an institution is going to close down immediately, Eaton pointed out. It is serious, but it does not mean a curriculum is nonfunctional or a college can’t provide support services.

“It is something the accreditor wants the institution to improve, and they are saying, ‘Look, you need to pay some particular attention to this,’” she said. “It’s more than saying, ‘OK, just work on this over the next few years.’ It’s saying, ‘Work on this now and fix this.’”

Other accreditors have tilted their processes toward faster public disclosure, though.

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education typically has a public announcement up about a week after a probation decision, said Brian Kirschner, director of communications and public relations. If the commission has a meeting ending on a Thursday, it will have processed the action, reported it to the Department of Education, reported it to the institution and then posted about it online by the next Wednesday or Thursday. Middle States categorizes probation as a “non-compliance action,” and its policies state noncompliance actions are not appealable.

“For us, the institutions want to hear about it,” Kirschner said. “And of course the public, if you include the students and whatnot, we want to put the information out there for their purposes.”

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges doesn’t allow colleges and universities to appeal probation decisionsNeither does the Higher Learning Commission, the largest of the accreditors, which is responsible for institutions from West Virginia to Arizona.

“Only being dropped from membership is appealable,” said Belle S. Wheelan, SACSCOC president. “Our policy says that we notify the institution’s president before we announce it to the public. Usually, the board will vote in the morning, we will call the president right away, and as soon as the staff notifies me that the president is aware, then we let the press know.”

An argument can be made that accreditors give colleges and universities time to respond to concerns even if they post notice about probations without waiting for an appeal. The commission vote isn’t the first time an institution learns it might be on probation. Colleges and universities have a chance to present information before the vote takes place.

“We often go through months of internal due process — discovery and evaluation — that feed into the Board of Trustees considering a sanction,” said Barbara Gellman-Danley, president of the Higher Learning Commission, in a statement. “After that decision is made, our focus shifts outward. Within two weeks, we inform the institution and then post a public disclosure notice that clearly explains the issues, the HLC action, and its impact on students.”

Even the shorter timelines wouldn’t necessarily stop students from learning about a probation shortly before they’re scheduled to head to campus.

The Higher Learning Commission decided at its June 28 meeting to place Wilberforce University in Ohio on probation over concerns about teaching and learning, and resources, planning and institutional effectiveness. Wilberforce received an email from the accreditor about the change on July 10. It held a universitywide meeting about the move July 17, just 10 days before new student orientation was scheduled. The university posted an HLC-approved statement on its website on July 31, a day before classes were scheduled to start.

Looking at it from an institution’s perspective, it’s possible to see why a college or university might want to have time to make an announcement on its terms. Universities have used gaps between the date of a probation decision and when they publicly disclose that decision to inform key constituencies about an accreditor’s action.

The University of Providence, in Great Falls, Mont., was placed on probation when the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities met this June over concerns about requirements related to public disclosure and its relationship with the accreditation commission. It received a formal letter from the accreditor July 30 and had until Aug. 7 to appeal under the accreditor’s policies. It decided not to, according to Katie Carpenter, interim director of communication.

Leaders then wanted to tell faculty about the probation in person, but faculty members did not have to report to campus until Aug. 15. Between Aug. 7 and Aug. 15, the university told board members and key donors. Then on Aug. 15 it told faculty and staff members and sent an email to students and parents. The local newspaper did not report on the probation until Aug. 15 under an agreement with the university, Carpenter said.

“We really wanted to inform our constituencies, especially faculty, in person,” she said. “It couldn’t have come at a trickier time because faculty wasn’t back on campus until the 15th.”

For responsible colleges, the extra time can mean an opportunity to find the right way to deliver the news, add context and answer questions. Of course, skeptics could argue it allows for institutions to find ways to massage the message and make critical problems sound less serious. The playbook for colleges and universities that are on probation for financial reasons seems to be to issue public statements arguing the situation has no bearing on their academics, for example. Many experts would say financial problems can affect a student’s academic experience, though — ask a Mount Ida student how the college’s financial problems changed their classroom experience.

Those who have spent time studying accreditation called the question of probation disclosures a classic example of a system with features in conflict. The goal of reviewing quality so an institution can pursue self-improvement conflicts with the goal of accountability and consumer protection, said Kevin Kinser, a professor of education and head of the Education Policy Studies department at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Education and editor of a recent book about challenges facing accreditors.

“Here accreditation agencies are being deliberative in their decision-making, and giving institutions the opportunity to respond to findings in a confidential forum before they are made public,” Kinser said in an email. “In the meantime, however, they are potentially allowing poor-performing institutions to continue operation without consequences. The problem is that under the current system, no one has the authority to insist on one priority over the other, leaving accreditors to make their own judgment calls.”

His co-editor on the book, Susan Phillips, concurred. Phillips, a professor in the department of educational administration and policy studies at the State University of New York at Albany, added that another system is in the mix as well: the federal government. It requires accreditors to afford institutions due process and spells out timelines under which accreditors must notify different parties about some actions.

“The combination of those two provisions, plus the consumer protection concerns and the quality improvement concerns, end up making nondisclosure seem in some instances like a required due process not yet complete, in others like an appropriate opportunity to improve, and in yet others like consumer-endangering secrecy,” Phillips said in an email.

What students don’t immediately know won’t hurt them. Or will it?