How the U.S. Department of Education Can Fix Harmful Accreditation Regulations

In 2019, former US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos led the most sweeping efforts in history to weaken the country’s credentialing system, which aims to protect students and taxpayers from predatory colleges. Given that accreditation typically evolves at a glacial pace – and, as a result, these changes take years to take effect – the potential real-life consequences are only beginning to emerge.

Accrediting agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education are custodians of more than $120 billion in federal funds that colleges receive in the form of federal grants and loans. A new Florida law reveals how regulations put in place under Secretary DeVos are reducing the quality and oversight of the credentialing process. Florida lawmakers used the new flexibility to force public colleges to switch accreditors, reportedly because lawmakers were unhappy that their current accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), had raised concerns. concerns about ethics and academic freedom.

Unfortunately, the credentialing system was in trouble even before the changes under Secretary DeVos. It’s important that the Biden administration not only work to undo the damage done during DeVos’ tenure, but also address flaws in the system that predate the Trump administration. But because implementing new regulations will take time, the Biden administration must leverage the tools at its disposal beyond the standard rule-making process.

This column highlights just one example of how the 2019 rule changes have weakened the credentialing system and how the Biden administration can fix or minimize the damage they could cause.

Allow political interference

In May 2021, SACSCOC, the accreditor that oversees colleges in Florida, raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest during Florida State University’s presidential search, as one of the applicants served on the board. of the institution, which was responsible for choosing the new president. . And in November 2021, SACSCOC launched an investigation into the University of Florida for allegedly violating the accreditor’s academic freedom standards when it attempted to block faculty members from testifying in a lawsuit over the right to vote. The SACSCOC Board Committee on Compliance and Reporting will meet in June 2022 to review its findings and make a decision thereon.

Shortly after those changes, a bill passed through the Florida Legislature — SB 7044, signed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) in April — that requires colleges to change accreditors whenever their accreditation needs be renewed. In practice, the law prevents colleges from being accredited by SACSCOC for consecutive cycles. It also allows institutions to sue their accreditor for taking “retaliatory action,” which can prevent accreditors from holding institutions accountable and limits tenure for faculty members whose teachings do not match. align with state and parental priorities, raising serious concerns about academic quality.

In the past, Department of Education regulations restricted most accreditors to working with colleges in specific geographic regions, which prevented Florida institutions from switching to a new accreditor. But under regulations issued by Secretary DeVos, accrediting agencies need only release the list of states in which they have institutions or programs, opening the door for institutions to move to agencies with standards. lower, including as a result of political interference. Similarly, allowing accreditors to consider institutions outside of their regions may encourage them to focus on speeding up the process in order to realize profits, rather than ensuring quality.

It remains to be seen whether colleges can actually follow the steps prescribed by law. SB 7044 ignores the difficulties that colleges and universities face when seeking approval for a new accreditor. In order to receive accreditation, institutions are required to provide in-depth assessments of their performance and undergo on-site visits, and they are also required to pay an application fee of thousands of dollars. Once this assessment is complete, the accrediting body determines whether or not to accredit the institution or program. If he refuses the establishment’s accreditation, the latter must begin the process again.

In March 2022, Education Department Undersecretary James Kvaal sent Governor DeSantis a letter outlining this concern — and several others — regarding the Florida bill. Kvaal wrote that the bill could put students and institutions at risk of losing access to federal funding, but Governor DeSantis signed SB 7044 anyway.

How the department can repair the damage

The 2019 accreditation regulations could allow substandard colleges to harm students, even while benefiting from taxpayer funds. To avoid further damage, the Department of Education must begin the process of replacing the regulations implemented under Secretary DeVos, which also provides an opportunity to address various issues in the credentialing system that predate the Trump administration. Unfortunately, to allow time for institutions to integrate the changes, the new regulations could probably not come into force before 2024.

But the department still has options to address the damage of the 2019 regulations in the short term. The department can hold listening sessions to hear from stakeholders about the effects the 2019 regulations are having on students and institutions, and it can also issue sub-regulatory guidelines to help clear up confusion about how accreditors, colleges and other system participants should interpret regulations until they can be superseded.

Development of negotiated rules

Negotiated rulemaking is a process that the Department of Education is required to use to obtain stakeholder and public feedback on Title IV programs authorized under the Higher Education Act. Under the Biden administration, the department held negotiated rulemaking sessions on affordability, student loans, Pell grants for prison education, and institutional and programmatic eligibility. These sessions have not yet addressed accreditation.

When the department announced upcoming rulemaking sessions in the summer of 2021, the Center for American Progress provided oral comments during the public hearing stage detailing that accreditation should be included among the topics because the department has a significant opportunity to improve student outcomes by reforming accreditation. This is still the case, and the ministry should review these regulations and allow interested people to advocate for changes.

Organize listening sessions and allow written comments from the public

Prior to the process of developing negotiated rules, the department typically holds public hearings to allow individuals to comment on proposed topics and make suggestions for additional topics. However, if the department decides to suspend the process of developing the negotiated rules, it can still seek public input. Indeed, the department has already created similar opportunities for listening sessions with the public. By bringing together individuals and organizations with an interest in accreditation, the department would help identify any issues with current accreditation regulations that do not adequately protect and maintain quality higher education opportunities.

Currently, the only opportunity for the public to voice concerns about the accreditation process at the department is at meetings of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), which are held twice. per year. At the February 2022 meeting, the organizations urged the department to practice more transparency by releasing relevant documents to the public.

In addition to the listening sessions, the ministry may allow written public participation, which would provide another means for the public to raise suggestions and concerns with the ministry.

Sub-regulatory orientations

Until it creates and implements new regulations, the Department of Education is bound by regulations issued during Secretary DeVos’ tenure, but it can still provide guidance on how those regulations should be implemented. interpreted. These sub-regulatory guidelines may take the form of a letter to colleagues, which is a mechanism used by the department to communicate the meaning of regulations. The department has regularly sent letters to dear colleagues on topics ranging from Title IX accreditation to distance education.

In the summer of 2021, NACIQI members requested that the department conduct in-depth training on how these new regulations should affect their decision-making when reviewing accrediting agencies. It is a sign that there is a need for more clarity on the current regulations until they are replaced.

Conclusion

Florida’s new law is a warning sign that credentialing regulations implemented under Secretary DeVos will cause real-world damage, and it’s only the first hint of the potential consequences. If these problems are not corrected, institutions, accreditors and politicians will continue to use accreditation for personal gain. The Ministry of Education has a duty to restore and expand the safeguards around accreditation that protect both students and taxpayers.

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