Imagine that after paying $17,000 for a brand new car you found out that it cannot take any fuel that is available at gas stations and that modifying the car so it can use regular gasoline will cost almost about half what the card did. You’d be pretty upset right?
Well that’s the exact situation students find themselves in when they enroll in at an accredited university only to find out later that their course of study doesn’t have program accreditation or state approval.
There are two types of accreditation. The most common kind is regional or national accreditation, in which an entire institution is reviewed to check its finances, academic programs, and other things. Winning approval under this process allows a school to participate in the federal student aid programs. It also lends a strong degree of credibility to an institution since it indicates an outside acknowledgment of legitimacy.
While general institutional accreditation works for most subject areas, some technical or vocational offerings also require their own programmatic or specialized, accreditation. Graduating from an accredited program is frequently a requirement for taking the recognized licensing test in that field. For example, with most law schools need to be accredited by the American Bar Association so that students can sit for the bar exam and be practicing lawyers. It’s a similar story with medical and dental school.
Thus even if a student attends an accredited institution, completing a program that lacks necessary specialized accreditation makes it effectively worthless. That’s the place that Yasmine Issa, the single mother of twin girls from Yonkers, N.Y., found herself in as she told her story before the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee last week. Issa obtained a degree in ultrasound technology from Sanford-Brown Institute, but despite recruiters’ repeated promises she has since been unable to obtain a job in that field and is struggling to pay back the roughly $21,000 she still owes because her program lacked specialized accreditation and so she couldn’t sit for the necessary licensing exam.*
Similar scenarios arise when an institution offers a program that is not approved by the state. The Chicago Tribune recently reported on the plight of Denise Parnell who completed an 8-month nursing assistant program in Illinois only to find out that her course of study was not recognized by the state so she couldn’t sit for the nursing exam.
If the federal student aid programs aren’t available at accredited institutions, why should it be available at programs that lack either the required specialized accreditation or state approval needed for a licensing exam? The program lacks the stamp of quality approval and it’s a waste of federal dollars to fund programs that can’t actually be used.
There also absolutely need to be clearer disclosures about the difference between program and institutional accreditation. For example, read how Sanford-Brown describes the distinction:
Although programmatic accreditation is not required for employment in many cases, the existence of programmatic accreditation is a further indication that a program meets the standards of the profession, and may therefore indirectly enhance employment opportunities.
Also, in some cases, programmatic accreditation will allow the graduates of the accredited program to sit for some credentialing exams immediately upon graduation without any requirement of work experience.
Those statements are all factually accurate, but also paint a distorted picture. As Issa noted in her testimony, employers only want certified candidates, so if you need work experience to sit for the certification exam that’s a catch-22.
One alternative to all of these troubles would be to get rid of programmatic accreditation. That’s a mistake. Most of the fields that require it are so technical that it makes sense to hold them to a higher standard that entails greater scrutiny by experts that are most up to date on available technology and information.
Now I don’t know what the marketing materials for Sanford-Brown looked like, but it strikes me that selling the program as a way to get a great job without acknowledging it’s almost impossible to secure employment through a non-program accredited offering is pretty close to fraud and a waste of taxpayer-funded student aid dollars. It’s time to recognize program accreditation and state approval when making federal aid eligibility decisions.
*The Chronicle reported earlier this week that her debt was $17,300, the testimony states a little over $21,000. But of course it does not matter because Steve Eisman, who also testified on the same panel, has announced he will pay back her debt.