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.