Major College Accreditation Overhaul — What’s Changing and Why It Matters

The Department of Education quietly introduced significant changes to accreditation in November 2019. Proponents claim the rules will reduce bureaucratic inefficiencies and provide opportunities for educational flexibility and innovation. Critics say the move will weaken the credibility of the accreditation system, dilute the quality of accredited higher education institutions, and remove consumer protections for students and their families. How, exactly, will these new rules impact college students and families?

Major College Accreditation Overhaul — What’s Changing and Why It Matters

Under Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education introduced a comprehensive set of changes to accreditation in November 2019. The Department claims the rules will reduce bureaucratic inefficiencies and provide opportunities for educational flexibility and innovation. Critics say the move will ultimately weaken the credibility of the accreditation system and, consequently, dilute the quality of accredited higher education institutions and remove consumer protections for students and their families. In particular, the move will likely erode the distinctions between national accreditation and regional accreditation, ultimately paving the way for more widespread proliferation of untested and unaccountable colleges. Read on to find out how, exactly, these new rules will impact college students and families, and find out what House Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Ma.) is doing to fight back.

On July 1st, 2020, as colleges and universities struggled to navigate their way through the uncertainty of a global pandemic and an impending fall semester, a new set of accreditation rules quietly went into effect.

Consistent with other policy changes under the Betsy DeVos-led Department of Education, these new rules roll back regulations, reduce oversight, and shrink the role of the federal government in higher education. The new rules ease access to regionally accredited colleges for students with credits and degrees from nationally accredited colleges. But in doing so, the new rules will more generally ease accreditation standards all around.

At best, this is a mixed bag of short-term outcomes. At worst, these decisions foretell the long-term erosion of the accreditation system and, with it, a diminishing of quality control and consumer protection throughout higher education. Let’s dig a little deeper.

“Rightsizing” Accreditation

In November of 2019, the U.S. Department of Education released a 519-page document outlining new federal rules for accreditation in higher education. DeVos described the changes as an effort to “rightsize bureaucracy.”

The new rules mark the most consequential accreditation overhaul in a decade and continue a pattern of agency shrinkage under DeVos. We reached out to Congresswoman Lori Trahan (D-Ma.)—who recently introduced the Accreditation Reform Act of 2020—to find out more about this pattern. Rep. Trahan views this pattern as a long, sustained gift to the for-profit industry.

“On the House Education and Labor Committee, I always ask what value proposition we are offering to our students.” says Rep. Trahan. Unfortunately, our education system has been exploited by bad actors who fleece students with worthless degrees and a lifetime of crushing debt. Secretary DeVos has been at the forefront of this predatory behavior by rolling back regulations and instating proponents of for-profits in her department.”

The newest changes to accreditation would seem a fulfillment of this mission.

Who Wrote the New Rules?

The new accreditation rules were meant to be the result of a “negotiated rule-making” process. According to the Regulatory Review, a panel of 15 stakeholders—including industry groups, college student reps, and national and regional accrediting agencies—negotiated toward consensus on the new rules. Protestations from some of these groups suggest that the final rules were written without respect to this consensus.

A statement from the Department of Education indicates that the relaxed rules will “be less prescriptive and provide greater autonomy and flexibility to facilitate agility and responsiveness and promote innovation.”

According to The Regulatory Review, the “executive summary describes the rule as ‘eliminating artificial regulatory barriers’ and providing greater flexibility for ‘innovative educational practices.’”

What’s at Stake?

So why are critics concerned?

Because accreditation is the best way we have to distinguish credible colleges from those which fail to hire qualified faculty, maintain current curricula, or produce credible degrees. Accreditation is at least one way for students to determine whether or not they’ll get their money’s worth from an educational experience.

Accreditation is the stamp of approval granted to colleges, universities, and professional schools indicating that these institutions have met certain standards of academic quality, credibility, and currency. Only institutions that have been accredited by Department of Education-approved agencies can receive federal financial aid. This means students who wish to receive federal student loans or need-based grants must attend a school which has been recognized by either a regional or national accreditor with Department of Education approval.

Historically, regional accreditation has been widely regarded as superior to national accreditation. There are seven regional accreditors, and in the past, each has provided oversight to a given region of the United States. Most public universities, private non-profit colleges, and community colleges are regionally accredited, as are some online and for-profit institutions.

National accreditation is often given to vocational and religious schools, as well as to the vast majority of for-profit colleges that are unable to attain regional accreditation. Because national accreditation has been historically regarded as a less rigorous standard than regional accreditation, it is challenging, and often impossible, for a student to transfer credits, or a degree, from a nationally accredited school to a regionally accredited school.

For more on the basics of accreditation, and a look at the Department of Education recognized regional and national accreditation agencies, check out our Guide to Academic Accreditation.

Navigating the higher education landscape can be confusing. The accreditation system provides quality control and consumer protection for college applicants and their families. The hierarchy between national and regional accreditation provides students with basic guidelines for differentiating educational opportunities.

Stated more simply, students who are concerned with reputation and excellence will likely limit their search to regionally accredited schools. Students prioritizing accessibility or the acquisition of employment skills may benefit by considering nationally accredited schools.

Even still, these lines of demarcation are imperfect. We won’t name names, but there are schools of debatable credibility which have attained regional accreditation. This is why, argues Lori Trahan, existing rules haven’t gone far enough to protect students.

In stark contrast to the new set of rules, Rep. Trahan argues that “It is long overdue for Congress to strengthen the guardrails across our accreditation system and hold our watchdogs accountable for providing current and prospective students with high-quality, affordable education.”

It would seem, however, that the changes finalized by the DeVos-led Department of Education in late 2019 are designed to do exactly the opposite.

What’s Changed?

We’ve highlighted the most consequential changes to accreditation:

Ceding of State Authority to State Reciprocity

According to The Regulatory Review, the Department of Education removed “language related to the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA), a template agreement that outlines national standards for distance and online education programs. Obama-era rules required online programs to prove that they were authorized to operate in any states in which they had students. Because virtually all states participate in the SARA, online programs could easily satisfy this requirement. In the recent Education Department rulemaking, however, disagreement reportedly over whether the final rule should allow states to enforce their own higher education laws above and beyond what SARA requires.”

The material impact of this change is that states no longer have the authority to enforce any state laws that exceed federal rules against fraudulent or under-performing schools. This change will give far more latitude to such schools to operate in states which have historically had more stringent consumer protection laws.

The Department of Education argues that this change will “provide students with more options to pursue a higher education credential of value.” Critics point out that this change essentially enables “online programs to evade state education laws, even when those programs are not providing quality instruction to students.”

In fact, there is evidence that this rule change was not approved through the negotiated rule-making process. According to The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), the Department of Education surreptitiously deleted key language produced during the negotiation process, indicating that “Just six months ago, a slate of negotiators – including the Department of Education, colleges, and state officials – agreed that the Department must reinforce states’ ability to enact and enforce laws protecting residents enrolled online across state lines. Yet the Department erased the key language.”

While this grievance was raised repeatedly during the public comment period for the new rules, few if any changes were made before finalization. The final rule contradicts the agreed-upon rules produced by the rule-making committee and, in doing so, handcuffs individual states from protecting consumers against fraudulent schools.

Open competition between regional accreditors

Another consequential change aimed at blurring state lines, the new rules would allow regional accreditors, for the very first time, to compete for oversight of schools which fall outside of their geographic jurisdiction.

The Department claims that ending the geographic limitation is “to allow for additional competition, so that an institution or program may select an agency that best aligns with the institution’s mission and to improve transparency about the states in which each agency accredits campuses.”

In addition to making it possible for a school to seek accreditation outside of its immediate region, the rule allows schools to hold dual accreditation as a means of easing the transition between accreditors.

While the Department of Education calls this an effort at improving transparency, Inside Higher Ed reports that “The move to eliminate the geographic restriction for the agencies formerly known as regional accrediting agencies is designed, in part, to erode the regional/national accreditor distinction.”

By removing the geographic constraints surrounding regional accreditors, the Department would, over time, undermine the very rationale for the existence of regional accreditors. As competition presses these agencies to serve increasingly in a national capacity, the distinction between regional and national accreditors will be greatly diminished. Consequently, so will our ability to differentiate quality based on these standards.

Faster Recognition of New Accreditors

The new rules also include provisions to fast-track the approval of new accreditors. This measure explicitly lowers the threshold at which an accreditor can be recognized by the Department of Education. This is consequential because only schools that are accredited by Department-recognized agencies can receive federal financial aid.

There is already stark evidence that a number nationally accredited schools are already falling well short of providing high-quality educational experiences or credible degrees. According to the Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment, the six-year completion rate for students entering for-profit four-year colleges in 2011 was a meager 35%, as compared to 65% for four-year public colleges, and 76% for four-year private schools.

The Center also reports that, in 2012, 78% of for-profit bachelor’s recipients graduated with more than $20K in debt, as opposed to 39% of public college attendees, and 53% of private, non-profit grads. Reported median earnings for students 10 years after enrollment are also lower than earnings for graduates of nearly every other type of college.

Such is to say that lowering the threshold and creating an easier path of entry for national accreditors threatens only to further proliferate and empower schools that are falling short on most major indicators. The changes will also create a far more liberal distribution of student aid. The proposed benefit of this approach would be to facilitate greater access to student loans for those who wish to attend professional, vocational, or technical schools.

However, by design, this provision intends to proliferate national accreditation. The most likely schools to seek national accreditation with newly established agencies are those which have otherwise fallen short of existing accreditation standards. This promotes new borrowing opportunities for students, but these opportunities may represent a significant danger.

Education companies without accreditation are unable to receive federal financial aid. This is among the strongest deterrents for students who might otherwise be victims of aggressive recruitment and deceptive advertising—two tactics that underperforming for-profit schools have notoriously used in the past to attract students. The new rules could ultimately open the student loan floodgates for underperforming and even fake schools.

Consequently, the rule change renders the consumer protection infrastructure in higher education far less protective. According to TICAS, the rule “lowers standards for accreditors” and “undermines accreditation as a reliable guide to college quality.”

And as Congresswoman Trahan points out, this arrangement allows “fraudulent and low-performing schools to cheat taxpayers from their return on investment.”

Quicker Approval for Changes to Academic Programs

In addition to accelerating the path to Department recognition for accrediting agencies, the new rules will speed up the process by which changes are made to academic programs. This, say critics, will lower the standards to which schools are beholden when creating new courses, disciplines, or degree programs.

Antoinette Flores, associate director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress warns that “Loosening these rules raises the risk that colleges will again abuse loopholes to quickly scale up or fundamentally change operations without meeting quality standards.”

Allowance for New Academic Programs/New Branch Campuses Without Accreditor Approval

A closely-related provision gives schools the freedom to expand into new branches and campuses entirely free from accreditor oversight. According to TICAS, “The rule allows colleges to add campuses without approval” and “allows colleges to continue to operate out of compliance for longer periods of time.”

Taken together, the two provisions above would significantly diminish the oversight that currently governs the alteration, growth, or geographical expansion of colleges and universities. This goes hand in hand with provisions weakening the authority of individual states. This move would ease the ability of some schools to expand into states where they have previously faced more restrictive oversight. Combined with the elevation of the state reciprocity rule and the blurring of the line between national and regional accreditation, these provisions offer a government-funded life-raft to a for-profit education sector that suffered numerous regulatory blows during the Obama era.

More Agency Discretion in Sanctioning Schools for Noncompliance

At exactly the same moment that these rules ease the ability of schools to gain accreditation, expand academic programs, and create new campuses without oversight, they strip students of the ability to register grievances for unethical, deceptive, or fraudulent practices.

According to Inside Higher Ed, “the rules allow accreditors in some cases to take up to four years to impose sanctions, up from the current maximum of two years, which Trump administration officials have said is too short for colleges to make necessary improvements.”

This provides for greater latitude for underperforming schools to evade enforcement actions and, notably, leaves students with even less recourse against deceptive or fraudulent institutions.

“And,” TICAS notes, “if accreditors don’t take action against failing colleges, there is little the Department could do to hold them accountable.”

The takeaway here is that students currently enrolled in failing schools and hoping for protective intervention would be unlikely to see any during the course of their education. The measure deprives victims of predatory education companies of their consumer advocacy.

Shhhh! New Rules. Keep it Down.

The new rules will reshape the higher education landscape, especially for students struggling at its foothills. Strangely, the news has registered only as the smallest blip in mainstream press. Even in the context of higher education, there has been a startling dearth of reporting.

This may well be a symptom of how deeply the pandemic has disrupted business-as-usual for colleges. Today, higher education is grappling with purely existential matters. As the COVID-19 pandemic persists in the United States, most institutions of higher learning are asking basic questions about functionality, safety, and survival. The most pressing question concerns how we might actually get students back into classrooms, lecture halls, and laboratories. So it’s easy to see how a bit of bureaucratic upheaval might be overlooked.

And yet these changes which will have very real consequences for students and families.

When higher education emerges from this pandemic, colleges will—like all of us—be profoundly and permanently changed in ways we can’t yet predict. What we can predict, however, is that the accreditation rules which went into effect on July 1, 2020 will play a part in this change. Far more discussion is needed before we can understand how these changes will shape an educational landscape already undergoing tectonic shifts. Unfortunately, to this point, little of this discussion has taken place.

A Race to the Bottom?

It may indeed be true that some students could be helped in the short-term by this measure. Students who have tied their fortunes to nationally accredited schools, or non-accredited schools, could get a second chance at accessing regionally accredited schools. By removing barriers to credit- and degree-transfers, the move could help improve prospects for countless students bogged down with debts and previously worthless credits or credentials.

Unfortunately, the reverse side of this opportunity is the likelihood that lowering standards will net far more students into unchecked and underperforming educational programs in the long-term. Indeed, the ongoing impact of these changes will be a gradual erosion of hierarchical accreditation standards and, with it, a decline in consumer protection, student advocacy, and quality control.

This is especially concerning as the rule changes push regional accrediting agencies into a competitive landscape. Critics of the rule changes have expressed concern that heightened competition between accreditors would stimulate a “race to the bottom,” where accreditors ultimately prioritize winning over schools above meaningful accreditation standards.

As a consequence, critics fear “that colleges and universities would seek out agencies that applied less scrutiny and asked them to meet fewer accountability requirements.”

With the initiation of new rules in July 2020, this race has already begun. The board for the Western Association of Schools and Colleges’ Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) voted unanimously to expand beyond its region. Historically, the regional accreditor has provided accreditation to California, Hawaii, and the Pacific Islands. With the rule change, WSCUC will now make its oversight available to colleges outside of its traditional jurisdiction.

Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy with New America’s education policy program, warns that “there is likely to be pressure to make their processes less rigorous. WSCUC has historically tried to be a cut above everybody else, and I doubt they will let their reputation flip so considerably. But if other accreditors lose some institutions to WSCUC, there will be a cascading effect that will definitely lead the race to the bottom.”

Pushing Back

With the Accreditation Reform Act of 2020, Rep. Trahan offers a legislative line of defense against the new rules. She notes that “The Accreditation Reform Act was introduced in response to the lack of accountability and weak oversight from both accreditors and the Department of Education.”

Among its key provisions, the bill:

  • Enhances transparency by creating a public database on the Department’s website to include all major reviews and final decision documents
  • Strengthens checks and balances by empowering an independent and bipartisan advisory board to play a greater role in federal reviews
  • Modernizes the accreditation process by requiring the Department to consider all information at its disposal from financial reports and risk assessments to student complaints
  • Increases accountability by encouraging the Department to lawfully utilize its power to regulate and discipline bad actors that fail to ensure quality in higher education.

If ratified, the bill would at least help to reconstitute the consumer protection and advocacy that students have recently lost.

Overhaul in a Time of Crisis

As these changes take hold, students begin a new school year with fewer consumer protections than ever before. TICAS warns that “the rule removed assurances that students can file complaints with their own state and with the state in which their school is located, which potentially makes ‘it harder for states to know if their students are being mistreated by out-of-state colleges.’”

At a time when the global pandemic has clouded the immediate future and heightened concern for actual student safety, it could be easily overlooked that these rules are blunting the mechanisms for raising grievances against failing schools.

Whether schools are failing to provide current curriculum or qualified teachers, or they fail to reopen with realistic plans in place for keeping students safe and healthy, the new rules give students and their families less power than ever before to push for corrective action.

In no uncertain terms, these moves are designed to make it easier for accreditors to rubber stamp poor schools; easier for failing institutions to create an illusion of legitimacy; and harder for students and their families to find a safe, fair, and affordable education.

Photo of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking by Gage Skidmore used with permission under CC BY-SA 4.0