Postsecondary Accreditation Cannot Become a Race to the Bottom

Postsecondary Accreditation Cannot Become a Race to the Bottom
Postsecondary Accreditation Cannot Become a Race to the Bottom

By: Antoinette Flores, Senior Advisor, Office of Postsecondary Education

The Department of Education (Department) is committed to ensuring that institutions of higher education (institutions) maintain high quality standards and strong student outcomes. As a member of the Federal triad, which under the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) requires the Department to work in conjunction with states and accrediting agencies to ensure oversight and accountability of postsecondary institutions, the Department expects this same commitment from our partners.

“Accreditation-shopping,” where some institutions seek out specific accrediting agencies to avoid accountability, has a long history, starting with scandals in the late 1980s that rocked the postsecondary landscape. That’s why various provisions in the HEA and in Department regulations provide protections for students and taxpayers against this behavior.

The goal is to prevent a race to the bottom in quality standards among accrediting agencies and ensure that institutions cannot switch to an accrediting agency with less rigorous standards simply to evade accountability from an accrediting agency that investigates practices or takes corrective action against an institution. For this purpose, the HEA requires the Department to review and approve an institution eligible to participate in the federal aid programs before it can switch its accrediting agency or add an additional accreditor.

Recent changes to the accreditation landscape, such as the expansion of former regional accreditors to now accredit institutions outside their typical geographic boundaries and a new law in Florida that mandates public institutions to switch accrediting agencies before their next accreditation cycle, have been confusing to institutions and may also have a chilling effect on accrediting agencies as they seek to effectively do their job. As a result, the Department has taken a fresh look at the regulations and seeks to clarify the process for institutions looking to change accrediting agencies.

Today, the Department is releasing several new guidance documents to help inform institutions and accrediting agencies about their responsibilities related to these issues. The new guidance details:

  1. The process that institutions must follow if seeking to switch accrediting agencies or obtain accreditation by multiple agencies. This process requires that institutions get approval from the Department before they submit an application to a new accrediting agency.
  2. A listing of some of the factors the Department may consider in evaluating institutions that aim to switch accrediting agencies. These factors, which are intended to ensure that all institutions are held to high standards, will assess whether the change is motivated by a desire to improve institutional quality or evade rigor or oversight. The Department will also assess whether the institution’s desire to change accreditors is voluntary.
  3. How accrediting agencies should demonstrate that they meet the long-standing requirement in the HEA and Department regulations that agencies have a voluntary membership of institutions in order to be recognized by the Secretary.

These clarifications are intended to ensure that institutions are held to high standards, and that an institution subject to oversight by its current accrediting agency cannot simply seek to evade accountability by jumping to a different accrediting agency.

The changes also help maintain the integrity of the Federal triad and preserve the accrediting agencies’ role in oversight as intended in the HEA. The Department aims to protect against a race to the bottom and ensure that accreditation remains a voluntary process, as required by law, and that institutions are not forced to switch against their will. The Department will continue to work with institutions and accrediting agencies to implement these processes and protocols and to further ensure strong standards to better serve all students.