DeSantis Won the Accreditation Fight. What’s Next?

Governor Ron DeSantis speaking with attendees at the 2021 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Florida.

The once-sleepy topic of accreditation continues to take shape as perhaps the most important frontline topic in the battle for higher education reform.

For those who aren’t familiar with accreditation, a previous piece provided a short summary:

On paper, accreditors are private entities that review the quality of colleges. They serve as one of the three legs of the program-integrity triad that ensures colleges provide their students a decent education (the other two legs being the U.S. Department of Education [ED] and state authorization for colleges). For a college’s students to receive federal financial aid like Pell grants or student loans, the college must be accredited. Accreditors themselves must be approved by the Department of Education. So ED approves accreditors, which in turn approve colleges, which then allows ED to finance colleges via student aid.

Accreditors have immense power. Essentially, they can destroy any college by cutting off access to federal financial aid. And with that great power comes surprisingly little responsibility. Federal law spells out ten areas where accreditors must have accreditation standards (accreditors are given free rein over the content of those standards), but an elastic clause allows them to impose additional standards as well.

This clause gives accreditors essentially unchecked power, and as if to prove Lord Acton’s warning correct, accreditors have proceeded to abuse this power. A recent report by Adam Kissel and Timothy J. Rosenberger, Jr. documents some of these abuses, including (though see the report for many more):

  • “In 2006, the [American Bar Association] ABA then required law schools to demonstrate ‘concrete action’ to admit students (as well as hire faculty and staff) who were ‘diverse with respect to gender, race, and ethnicity.’ As the American Council of Trustees and Alumni noted, ‘the ABA specifically warned schools in states such as California where voters rejected racial preferences, that even they must find a way to comply.’”
  • “In May 2021, SACS interfered with the Florida State University (FSU) presidential search when it complained that candidate Richard Corcoran (today president of New College of Florida) was also on the governing board. SACS president Belle Wheelan argued that Corcoran should step down in order to be a candidate. Yet he was also the state’s education commissioner, and ‘The state Constitution requires the education commissioner to have a seat on the university system’s Board of Governors.’”
  • “WASC’s Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges ‘released a ‘Policy on Social Justice’ in June 2021 pledging to create a ‘climate’ of ‘anti-racism’ among accredited schools.”

To fight back, education reformers need to do a few things. First, colleges need to have choices among accreditors. If one accreditor abuses its power, colleges should have the option to switch to a non-abusive one. But until recently, switching was mostly forbidden. Accreditors were assigned geographic regions over which they had a quasi-monopoly. The Trump administration abolished the regional quasi-monopolies, and shortly thereafter, the state of Florida required its public colleges to switch away from a particularly abusive accreditor. The Biden administration sought to intervene to prevent switching, spurring a clash between Gov. Ron DeSantis and President Joe Biden. Gov. DeSantis recently won the fight, noting that “The Biden Administration backed down & allowed a Florida college to seek new accreditation.”

This is a reformist’s victory, all but ensuring that abusive accreditors will face market pressure. Sadly, this first step, while necessary, is not sufficient to undo or prevent future damage caused by the cudgel of accreditation.

The elastic clause still gives accreditors too much power and the left is urging accreditors to use it. Edward Conroy, Da’Shon Carr, and Olivia Cheche, writing for the progressive New America, explain that “it’s so critical that accreditors are mindful of the role they can play in establishing and strengthening standards that promote  DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion].” The elastic clause allows accreditors to mandate DEI, and most of them have: “Standards related to DEI are not a new area for many accreditors. Six of the seven major accreditors already have diversity and equity metrics in their standards” and the remaining holdout has DEI policies in all but name.

Back in 1909 Henry Ford only produced black cars, and when asked if other paint colors were an option, he replied, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Fast forward to 2023, and colleges can now use any accreditor they want, so long as it mandates DEI.

There are a few policies that could help to address this problem. First, as Lindsey M. Burke, Adam Kissel, Armand Alacbay, and Kyle Beltramini contend, “Congress must prevent accreditors from using their gate-keeping power to impose inappropriate regulations on institutions” by revoking the elastic clause. Accreditors could sneak DEI requirements under the ten mandated standards areas, but that would likely spur legal challenges.

The next Republican Secretary of Education will also have many additional options. The Secretary can and should approve new accreditors to ensure a sufficient diversity of perspectives on DEI are available. The Secretary also has the power to end federal recognition of accreditors that impose ideological litmus tests on the colleges they oversee.

Gov. DeSantis won an early battle to ensure that colleges can switch away from abusive accreditors, but the war is far from over.


Image by Gage Skidmore // Ron DeSantis // Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0


One thought on “DeSantis Won the Accreditation Fight. What’s Next?”

  1. With the caveat that I am vastly oversimplifying this to avoid going deeply into the weeds, there are two types of accreditors — those that accredit institutions and those which accredit a specific program within the institution. For example, a university in Massachusetts would (usually) be accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), while it’s law school would be accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) — and these two accreditations are largely independent of each other.

    The regional accreditors evolved in the late 19th and early 20th Century when various institutions sought to compare themselves against their (regional) peers and to identify the “best practices” in the rapidly expanding field of higher education. They were sort of like Better Business Bureaus that institutions chose to belong to so that they could advertise their membership as a sign of institutional quality — not unlike the Association of American Universities (AAU) today.

    When WWII ended, there was a great fear that the returning GIs entering the labor market before it could shift back to a civilian economy would plunge the country into another Depression and hence the decision to offer them a free college education — thus removing them from the workforce for another four years. The federal government knew next to nothing about higher education, it didn’t want a lot of scam artists looting the program, yet the absolute last thing it wanted to do was be involved in regulating colleges. So what it did was use the existing network of peer accreditation as the prerequisite to receive these Federal funds — thus creating the system that exists today.

    These institutional accreditors are not to be confused with program accreditors, of which the American Bar Association (ABA) is probably the best known — in part because it has found to be in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. See:

    If you wish to take the bar exam (the prerequisite to obtaining a state-issued law license), you must first graduate from an ABA-approved law school. This was not always the case, the law traditionally was an apprenticeship process and one of the reasons the ABA was founded in 1878 was to reduce the number of lawyers so as to increase lawyer income.

    The ABA went to the various states and got *state* laws changed to require prospective lawyers to graduate from a law school which they have approved, and hence their authority exists under a mosaic of state laws and their unquestioned ability to render an institution’s diplomas literally worthless.

    This issue actually has come up with the American Psychological Association (APA) and the case of Jennifer Keeton. Like many observant Christians, Jews, and Muslims, Keeton held the view of her religion that homosexuality was morally wrong. She was attending what was then Augusta State University, a public university in the somewhat socially conservative state of Georgia, and the First Amendment ought to have protected her right to hold whatever religious values she wanted to, regardless of how unpopular they may have been with some of her classmates.

    But no — because the program had to be approved by the APA in order for its graduates to obtain their school counseling licenses, and because the APA mandates that everyone in an approved program have APA-approved views regarding homosexuality, the program had the right to expel her on the basis of her religious views because otherwise the APA would revoke its accreditation and all the other students wouldn’t be able to obtain their counseling licenses.

    And what’s even scarier is that a court actually upheld this — these private program accreditors have the power to force state universities to violate the Constitutional rights of their students. That’s scary.

    What’s even more scary is that this really wasn’t about Jennifer Keeton as much as the ability of the APA to impose a *national* litmus test on who is allowed to obtain psych licenses. Throw in the fact that 95% of psychologists self-define as being on the “far left” on social issues and one can easily foresee a very Orwellian future…

    The solution, of course, is competition and there is historical precedent here. The AMA did not like Osteopathic medicine — really did not like it, and sought to ban ODs from the practice of medicine. But the Osteopaths went to the state legislatures and got legislation passed mandating their credentials and accreditations be considered equal to those of the AMA — and today, there is virtually no distinction between the two.

    Program accreditation is a battle that we need to fight on the state level. Starting in “red” states, we need to tell these program accreditors that they can hold whatever values they want to, but that they are NOT going to tell us who we are going to issue state licenses to. It would only take a half dozen states recognizing, say, the “Christian Psychological Association” and it’s accreditations to put an end to all of this.

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