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In new guidance released Tuesday, the U.S. Education Department clarified how college accrediting agencies should handle complaints about institutions. 

The department wrote in the guidance that it would take into account a number of factors in determining whether the agencies review complaints in a “timely, fair and equitable” manner, the current regulatory standard. Those factors include whether the agencies’ complaint policies follow accessibility standards for individuals with disabilities, allow for a complainant’s confidentiality and offer more than one submission method. 

Several experts and advocates have criticized how accreditors deal with complaints, which can be a key way for the agencies to get more information about what’s happening at a college or university. One brief from New America, a left-leaning think tank, argued that the policies at the seven formerly regional accreditors aren’t effective, are burdensome and seem designed to protect the institutions.

“Accrediting agencies’ complex complaints processes are likely suppressing the number of complaints they receive and missing problems at institutions that warrant investigation,” wrote Edward Conroy, a senior adviser with New America’s education policy team, in a post about the new guidance. “We are grateful to the department for this robust guidance and hope it will help agencies improve how they handle and investigate issues at the institutions they oversee.

A subcommittee of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, which oversees accreditors, said in a policy brief released last week that some agencies have in its view failed to meet the “timely, fair and equitable” standard. 

The subcommittee suggested that department staff use their judgment to identify areas where the policies don’t meet the standard and make recommendations to enhance the regulations.

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