Aug. 9, 2022
Not so fast! Department of Ed puts colleges on notice about accreditor shopping
In a recent blog post released alongside a series of guidance memos for institutions of higher education, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) explained that it will not tolerate accreditation shopping as a race to the bottom when it comes to academic standards. The post, by Antoinette Flores, a senior advisor in the Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE), points to Florida’s new accreditation law as one reason for the guidance. This law was meant to address what Florida lawmakers saw as overreach by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), for inquiring about potential undue political influence being exercised over Florida State University and the University of Florida by state education officials. Instead, it may break the important role of accreditors as gatekeepers of federal financial aid.
What do accreditors do and why does it matter?
Accreditors are part of a “program integrity triad,” the other members being ED and states that act jointly as gatekeepers for institutions to receive money from federal student aid programs. As a key member of the triad, accreditors are charged with determining the academic quality of the colleges they accredit. For example, accreditors can require that institutions employ appropriately trained and qualified faculty, assess whether students receive sufficient academic support and that students are completing their programs at a reasonable rate. While our accreditation system isn’t perfect, Florida’s new law erodes the ability of accreditors to hold the institutions they accredit within the state accountable to their standards, with serious repercussions for the triad.
What is the new Florida accreditation law and who does it impact?
Earlier this year, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill requiring all public colleges and universities to switch accrediting agencies every time they would normally renew accreditation, typically every five to ten years. Supporters of the law have suggested that changing accreditors periodically will provide “fresh perspectives” to institutions. In contrast, ED pre-emptively warned Florida lawmakers that the bill would create conflicts with federal accreditation standards, and would be costly and administratively burdensome for colleges.
The law also allows institutions to sue accreditors if they are “negatively impacted by retaliatory action taken against a postsecondary education institution by an accrediting agency or association.” Retaliatory action is undefined in the law. This lack of definition makes it hard to know whether Florida courts might allow colleges to sue their accreditors for taking actions that are part of their jobs. Accreditors must tell institutions and programs if the education they are providing meets appropriate educational quality standards, or if there are other issues including institutional integrity, that concern it, such as political interference. Failure to meet the standards established by an accreditor may result in corrective action, which can include placing colleges on warning, requiring improvement plans, and in extreme circumstances, withdrawing accreditation. Without specificity in the law, these actions could be seen as retaliatory.
Accreditation is a time-consuming process that includes a comprehensive peer and committee review of curriculum and other facets of the institution, so colleges and universities avoid changing accreditors without good reason. When Governor DeSantis signed Florida’s new law, many institutions signaled concerns about being forced to change accreditors regularly.
Not only will this law be burdensome for institutions, but it will also have a chilling effect on the role that accreditors play in overseeing institutions and allowing them access to federal financial aid dollars.
Encouraging institutions to constantly hop from one accreditor to another or sue their accreditor in certain situations gives power to institutions to seek accreditors that have more lenient accrediting standards. There are no centrally agreed-upon accreditation standards, so different agencies often have different rules. Accreditor actions that could negatively impact an institution are taken when institutions are not providing a high-quality education and/or when accreditors are concerned an institution is mismanaging finances. Accreditor actions help ensure that students do not attend low-quality programs or institutions that face imminent closure due to financial issues. Florida’s law is akin to a rule that allows your favorite take-out place to sue the health inspector for citing health code violations in the restaurant kitchen.
Why is this important to the Department of Education?
Accreditation makes an institution eligible for federal financial aid dollars. If a student can’t use federal financial aid at a college, such as Pell Grants and federal student loans that college would in most cases be forced to close its doors.
By forcing institutions to seek a new accreditor every five years, Florida’s law encourages poorly performing institutions to seek out accreditors that will allow lower standards while threatening those with higher standards with retaliation if they do their jobs properly.
The post, and additional guidance from ED make it clear that ED will require institutions to seek permission before applying to be recognized by a new accreditor, helping to ensure a state law doesn’t fundamentally break the triad. The list of factors ED will consider to be “reasonable causes” for accreditation shopping, makes it doubtful that institutions who want to change accreditors without good cause will have their requests approved. This guidance will create conflict for public colleges and universities in Florida. Based on the written guidance from ED, it is unlikely that a conflicting state law will be seen as a good enough reason for institutions to seek a new accrediting agency. This could place Florida public colleges in a catch-22 where obeying federal law and regulations would break Florida law and vice versa.
ED’s blog post makes clear that it will look askance at any state law that might have a “chilling effect” on accreditors working to keep political interference out of higher education—as they are required to do to fulfill their missions. ED appears to be putting Florida, and other states, on notice that it will not tolerate state laws that pit institutions against accreditors.
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