BLOOMINGTON — Changes are needed in the higher education accreditation system to better protect students and evaluate academic quality, according to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.

The Springfield Democrat has joined four fellow Democrats in reintroducing the Accreditation Reform and Enhanced Accountability Act. He sees the legislation as a way to better protect students and taxpayers.

In fiscal 2016, more than $125 billion in federal student aid money went to postsecondary students. To take part in federal student aid programs, postsecondary schools, which educate students after high school, must be accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Education Department.

However, a recent report by the Government Accountability Office found shortcomings in the accreditation system.

Under the legislation, accreditors would be required to use information on student outcomes — such as loan repayment rates, graduation rates, students earnings and job placement — to evaluate colleges.

The legislation also would require accreditors to respond quickly to investigations related to fraud and provide tools to hold accreditors accountable if they fail to protect students from poor quality or predatory schools.

Durbin noted that two for-profit schools, Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech, remained accredited until they declared bankruptcy. Both closed in 2016 amid allegations of fraud.

For-profit colleges enroll 9 percent of all postsecondary students “but account for 17 percent of all federal student aid and 35 percent of all federal student loan defaults,” said Durbin.

“For-profit colleges offer the clearest examples of where the current accreditation system fails to live up to its responsibilities to students and taxpayers,” said Durbin. “But, the Accreditation Reform and Enhanced Accountability Act would reform the accreditation system for all schools.”

Joining Durbin in reintroducing the measure are Sens. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Elizabeth Warrren of Massachusetts and U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.

It comes as Congress is debating reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the law that authorizes federal student aid programs.

The GAO gathered suggestions from experts in the field without making specific recommendations. Those proposals included increasing the focus on student outcomes and strengthening communication and transparency.

Warren said, “Accrediting agencies are supposed to make sure students get a good education and protect taxpayer dollars from lousy schools. But as this report highlights, our accreditation system is clearly broken.”

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Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota

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