Let Colleges Choose an Accreditor

State laws that ignore Trump-era reforms should be amended posthaste.

Federal financial aid depends on whether your college is accredited. That means an independent agency vouches for your college, assuring that it’s not a scam and that it fulfills its promises. Accreditors have a huge amount of power. Too often, they abuse it. Fortunately, there are solutions.

One way that accreditors abuse power is to interfere with university governance. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) is the most notorious. SACS recently intervened in the decisions of at least three universities in Florida. The accreditor infamously threatened the august University of Virginia when it didn’t like how UVA’s board got the president to resign.

Accreditors have also interfered with the religious liberty of the schools they accredit. For example, the accreditor for New England universities threatened Gordon College because it asked for a religious exemption for federal contractors that maintain a traditional mission.

For decades, each accreditor effectively had a monopoly over its services in its region.The accreditors felt bold enough to do this because, for decades, each accreditor effectively had a monopoly over its services in its region. There was only one accreditor per region, not counting “national” accreditors, which are treated as second-class (even though they aren’t).

Under Secretary DeVos, however, the U.S. Department of Education broke the regional monopolies by effectively making the accreditors into competing national bodies. Finally, colleges had a real choice. Accreditors began opening up to new areas, and colleges started switching.

The problem in some states, however, is that state law has not caught up to align with the new federal regulations. In West Virginia, for instance, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) was the presumed university accreditor because it was the only regional accreditor, and state regulations still say as much. To fix this problem and let colleges choose the accreditor that is best for them, state regulators need to amend their rules.

The new federal regulations came into effect a couple of years ago, so there’s no good excuse for state regulators and state laws to be behind. That’s why, after I alerted a state senator to the issue, she submitted a bill that would require West Virginia regulators (the Higher Education Policy Commission and a similar body for technical colleges) to align state rules with federal rules.

Some other states need to do the same.

In South Carolina, the relevant law often refers to accreditors recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). But the Teachers Loan Program (§ 62-120) makes certain students ineligible for loans unless their program is accredited by SACS. The South Carolina National Guard College Assistance Program (§ 62-150), the Palmetto Fellows Scholarship Program (§ 62-300, at least for “independent institutions”), and other opportunities also require SACS accreditation.

Elsewhere in South Carolina law, “independent institutions” must be accredited by SACS, without any other choice (§ 59-113-50). The presumption in South Carolina law is SACS or nothing, even though, under federal regulations, that’s not true anymore.

The new federal regulations came into effect a couple of years ago, so there’s no good excuse for state regulators to be behind.In Kentucky, the Kentucky Tuition Grant takes SACS accreditation as the norm. Kentucky’s General Education Transfer Policy and Implementation Guidelines (at least as of 2017) also take SACS standards as the norm.

In North Carolina, however, it appears that regulations need not be changed. The Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina is the authorizer of nonpublic colleges in the state, but its rules merely refer to any accreditor recognized by CHEA. Furthermore, North Carolina law does not even require a college to be accredited. The only difference is that licenses to operate last only two years for unaccredited institutions, versus six years for accredited ones.

Putting the UNC Board of Governors in charge, nevertheless, does not seem ideal. This is because the Board of Governors is effectively being asked to authorize its own competitors. The situation is like the infamous “certificate of need” programs, in which competitors decide whether a new entrant is really necessary and often say no. It’s a conflict of interest that shouldn’t be allowed.

In Virginia, state law requires only an accreditor recognized by ED, or else a plan and timeline for accreditation. Tennessee law and regulations similarly permit accreditation by any accreditor recognized by ED. The same is true in Georgia, and unaccredited institutions may instead provide an annual Student Outcome Data Report (and must comply with other requirements).

This overview does not declare that no documents or standards in North Carolina and these other states default to SACS as the norm. The relevant state agencies should conduct their own reviews. But I doubt that legislation in these states is required to fully take advantage of the new flexibility offered by the DeVos-era federal regulations, like West Virginia needs.

Generally, higher education in North Carolina and across the country is already a great model of school choice. A student can take federal financial aid to almost any college in the United States. The money follows the student. When it comes to federal dollars, the only limitation on choice is whether the college is accredited and participates in the financial-aid programs.

West Virginia is also a national leader in K-12 school choice, passing the first statewide education savings account (ESA) program in 2021. The program is nearly universal, and in the past year, three more states have followed suit (with some programs affording more choice than others).

Somehow, West Virginia is behind other states when it comes to full choice in accreditation.But, somehow, West Virginia is behind other states when it comes to full choice in accreditation.

Florida’s model is also great, recognizing that colleges should change their accreditors every so often so they don’t get too cozy with their overseer. That’s the same principle behind corporations changing financial auditors from time to time. Accordingly, public colleges in Florida have to switch from SACS when it’s time to get reaccredited.

When it comes to a regulation that affects public and private colleges alike, the right step is to let every college choose any recognized accreditor. That’s what West Virginia should do, and I hope that South Carolina and other states will follow West Virginia’s lead.

Adam Kissel is Senior Fellow of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.