Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway named concern over inability to transfer credits as one of the primary reasons for his "investigation" into for-profit colleges in Kentucky. The attorney general has directly linked this issue to that of accreditation, saying proprietary colleges "...[are] not accredited by the normal accrediting agencies, in many instances, that would allow them to transfer credits."
The fact is, there is no "normal" accrediting agency. For-profit colleges, public colleges and private non-profit colleges in Kentucky must be accredited by any of several agencies approved by the U.S. Department of Education in order for their students to receive federal student aid.
DOE standards for approval are consistent for all accrediting agencies. There are no differing standards for national accrediting agencies versus regional accrediting agencies.
In the mid-1990s, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the regional accreditor for Kentucky, changed its accreditation criteria to effectively prohibit credit transfer from students who attended nationally accredited schools. SACS reversed this policy under pressure from the Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice. Today, SACS' policy on transfer of credit, like that of all 19 recognized accrediting agencies, acknowledges that "institutions and accreditors "need to assure that transfer decisions are not made solely on the source of accreditation of a sending program or institution."
The Department of Justice's role in this matter is instructive, as it was based on the same consumer protection interest cited by the attorney general in his assault on for-profit education: "The Justice Department submits these comments because of our concern that SACS' restrictive transfer of credit criteria may unreasonably injure ... students attending or who have attended those institutions, and the federal and state governments that subsidize the education of those students."
Indeed, the Department of Justice found that a transfer of credit policy based on a requirement for regional accreditation would "most adversely affect technical, occupational and vocational students who wish to continue their education, but who may be the least able to bear the burden of unnecessary and redundant courses."
All accreditors agree that transfer credit should be based on quality, comparability, appropriateness and applicability. Students deserve nothing less than a thoughtful evaluation of their academic work. However, history has shown that too often this is not the case.
Out of what may simply be an elitist and self-serving prejudice against institutions different from themselves, many regionally accredited institutions do not follow their accrediting agencies' mandates to look at the student's whole academic background when evaluating transfer credit. Many have effectively established closed-door policies toward students who have attended colleges accredited by other than regional agencies.
In 1997, the Department of Justice noted that "SACS' restrictions on transfer of credits for coursework completed at non-regionally accredited technical colleges are not justified by differences in the standards applied by the national accrediting associations."
In their world, regionally accredited institutions are considered "better" by other regionally accredited institutions because they themselves say their accreditation is better, not because of any difference in accreditation standards.
That regional accreditation is a "gold standard" is a myth perpetuated by regionally-accredited institutions — and those who take them at their word. Distinctions between national and regional accreditation are not made by the U.S. Department of Education, accreditation experts such as the Council on Higher Education Accreditation, nor those concerned with consumer protection such as the U.S. Department of Justice.
The attorney general rightly understands that transfer of credit problems exist. The path to addressing the problems is not to attack the recognized accreditation of institutions.
Instead, he should be investigating the transfer practices of receiving institutions to ensure they follow the mandate of their accreditors to fairly evaluate transfer students and not create unnecessary and burdensome obstacles to those students and their opportunity for continuing education.
Frank Longaker is president of National College, which educates approximately 2,000 Kentuckians at six Kentucky campuses.