Accreditation Oversight: All Bark, No Bite?

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There are few warnings for students that a college or university may leave them worse off than before they enrolled. That’s where the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) should come in. The federal committee with the acronym most likely to win the best evil villain’s name superlative – NACIQI – held its summer meeting this past July. NACIQI is the federal watchdog that greenlights accrediting agencies to approve access to the roughly $110 billion allocated to colleges and universities annually.

Accreditation is a critical quality assurance measure to check that colleges and universities are serving students well. NACIQI plays an important role in that process by keeping accrediting agencies in check when they are reviewing hundreds of institutions for access to taxpayer dollars. This oversight is crucial to ensure good outcomes for students, but accreditors, and their watchdog, are falling asleep on the job and there are few requirements in place to hold them accountable. So, what happened at the most recent NACIQI meeting? Below we highlight key takeaways from the summer meeting:

SACS’s Accreditor Review

The largest accreditor up for its five-year review was the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS). SACS accredits over 750 institutions across the southeast that enrolled more than 4,000,000 undergraduate and 800,000 graduate students in 2020. SACS faced intense scrutiny from the US Department of Education (Department) and NACIQI members from the onset of its review. Notably, SACS failed to submit required documents, like its principles of accreditation or documentation on substantive changes, in preparation for the review so it was initially found out of compliance. As a result, NACIQI approved the accreditor for the normal five years, contingent on a 12-month compliance report and further monitoring reports to guarantee the documentation is submitted and SACS has met its responsibility.

SACS continued to be in the hot seat about its antiquated student complaint policies. Currently, anyone lodging a complaint about a SACS-accredited institution must send a written letter, with a physical signature, and proactively identify the accreditation standard they believe the institution is violating. Requiring students to have a thorough knowledge of accreditation standards could limit complaints. And SACS acknowledged this limitation because their approach is intended to prevent frivolous complaints. Contrarily, NACIQI members believe it's SACS’s job to determine whether a complaint relates to accreditation standards, not the people submitting the complaint. Other accreditors have user friendly, web-based platforms for complaint submission where the accreditor determines if the submission is valid. NACIQI members called for a modernized, accessible complaint system which would better demonstrate that the accreditation process prioritizes student voices.

Arthur Keiser, NACIQI Chairman, also oversees several for-profit institutions that recently converted to non-profit status who are accredited by SACS. These colleges came up during the review and Keiser recused himself from the discussion due to the conflict of interest, which policymakers have advocated for in past committee meetings. In his absence, NACIQI members questioned SACS about the Keiser-controlled institutions’ financial situation, student outcomes, and student complaints. SACS’s representatives struggled to answer the questions, with the direct line of questioning sending a warning signal for other accreditors to be well prepared in their respective reviews.

Implications of Florida’s New Accreditation Law and New Federal Guidance

NACIQI’s general policy discussion, once accreditor reviews were over, focused on new guidance from the Department that makes clear that it will not tolerate “accreditation shopping” as a race to the bottom when it comes to meeting academic standards. The Department’s concerns stem in part from Florida’s new accreditation law, signed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in April 2022. The Department’s guidance highlights the concern that “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.”

Florida’s law requires all public colleges and universities to switch accrediting agencies during every renewal period, typically every five to 10 years, forcing the prospect of shopping around which is a huge institutional undertaking. 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 making it hard to know whether Florida courts will allow colleges to sue accreditors for doing their jobs. Accreditors must tell institutions and programs if the education they are providing is high quality or not, or if there are other concerning issues such as political interference. If schools fail to meet quality standards, accreditors will take corrective action, which can include placing colleges on warning, requiring improvement plans, and in extreme circumstances, withdrawing accreditation. Without specificity in the law, all these actions could be seen as retaliatory.

Further, the Department will require institutions to seek permission before applying for recognition by a new accreditor, so the state law doesn’t fundamentally break the triad of state authorization, the Department, and accreditors that sets the bar for higher education quality and accountability. And, institutions will need a good reason to have their requests approved to change accreditors based on the new list of factors the Department will consider to be “reasonable causes”. This could place Florida public colleges in a catch-22 where obeying federal regulations would break Florida law and vice versa.

NACIQI members largely welcomed the guidance, while noting that some warning from the Department would have made it easier for them to provide informed feedback. Multiple members indicated that one reason for the high quality of our higher education system is its independence, and threats to that independence, like Florida’s new law, should be avoided.  Many members mentioned that Florida’s law appeared to be written with no understanding of accreditors’ roles in preventing political interference with institutions. There was significant concern that political interference in academic freedom would harm the credibility and effectiveness of colleges and universities. Members believe that this guidance provides schools with a clearer understanding of when it’s acceptable to change accreditors.

Next Up for NACIQI

Four big accreditors will be up for review in early 2023 – Higher Learning Commission, Middle States Commission on Higher Education, New England Commission of Higher Education, and the WASC Senior College & University Commission. And, NACIQI could also look different in the winter meeting as several members’ terms end in September 2022. The empty seats give both Congress and the Department the opportunity to appoint new members to the committee. At least two of these new members will be nominated by Senate Democrats, who made the original appointments for the seats with a final decision made by the pro tempore of the Senate, giving them the chance to add voices to NACIQI who will advocate for outcomes-based values and accountability. This winter’s accreditor reviews also prime NACIQI with a chance to monitor big agencies’ student outcomes, require compliance and monitoring reports, and keep an eye on for-profit institutions.

Conclusion

The summer NACIQI meeting has emphasized that both NACIQI members and Department staff are working to hold agencies accountable based on existing accrediting standards. This accountability must be consistent in future meetings to be effective. Members asked direct and pointed questions of accreditor representatives and Department staff made it clear when accreditors were out of compliance. This heightened level of scrutiny is welcome and long overdue. It’s likely that accreditors up for review at the next meeting will have been watching and will hopefully feel compelled to carefully review where they can improve their operations and oversight of institutions. Hopefully, the increased focus on accreditation and compliance will encourage agencies to enhance their oversight of colleges and universities. NACIQI still has room to improve its oversight of accreditors and questions remain around whether student outcomes will be considered in future reviews or what the new Department guidance means for future meetings, but the committee has taken a step in the right direction by publicly pushing SACS to improve its operations.

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