Accreditation Reform Is Alive in North Carolina

The General Assembly may consider changes to existing higher-ed law.

On April 10, three N.C. senators filed a bill to reform college and university accreditation in North Carolina. Though the bill was recently pulled from this week’s legislative calendar, its introduction remains a positive sign for education reformers. If adopted, Senate Bill 680 would make significant changes to the accreditation processes for UNC institutions and public community colleges in the state.

Specifically, the bill would prohibit all public institutions from “receiv[ing] accreditation by the same accrediting agency for consecutive accreditation cycles” in most circumstances. In practice, this means that all of North Carolina’s public colleges and universities would have to leave their current accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), in the next 10 years.

The new law would also allow institutions to bring a civil action against any person “who makes a false statement to the accrediting agency” if certain criteria are met. If such a provision had been in place at the time, it’s possible that UNC-Chapel Hill could have used it to bring an action against Former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings for comments she made to SACSCOC President Belle Wheelan earlier this year about the proposed School of Civic Life and Leadership. Spellings drew Wheelan’s attention to accusations from faculty that the school was out of compliance with governance norms, an assertion that was questionable at best.

Competition in accreditation, if done right, can provide benefits for students, taxpayers, and postsecondary institutions.Similar bills have been filed in Florida and Texas. Florida’s Senate Bill 7044, which was signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis earlier this month, requires Florida universities to change accreditors at the end of every accreditation cycle. Texas’s Senate Bill 2335 would create a new commission to evaluate and approve accrediting agencies and mandate that institutions switch accreditors after, at most, 20 years.

Such bills are being offered in response to policies put in place by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to ensure competition in accreditation. Before DeVos took action, universities were tied to regional accreditors. Colleges and universities in the Southeast could only use SACSCOC. Now, DeVos has ensured that institutions can choose between accrediting bodies.

North Carolina’s bill has already come under fire from a local faculty group. Members of the North Carolina American Association of University Professors (AAUP) planned to protest the bill yesterday at the General Assembly. A flyer advertising the protest said the bill would “place university accreditation into partisan hands.” In an email to local AAUP members, Jay M. Smith, who is president of the N.C. conference of the AAUP and a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, called SB 680 “hostile to our state.” (The protest was postponed when the bill was pulled from the calendar.)

Others have praised state efforts to reform accreditation. Adam Kissel, visiting fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy, told the Martin Center, “Colleges should be allowed to choose high-quality accreditors and also should choose a new one every so often to stay accountable. The days of the SACS monopoly should end.”

The Martin Center’s extensive work on accreditation reveals that the system is broken. The process is costly, time-consuming, and fails in its primary purpose—to ensure that institutions are providing students with a valuable learning experience. State reforms are one tool to address these critical issues. Competition in accreditation, if done right, can provide benefits for students, taxpayers, and postsecondary institutions.

Jenna A. Robinson is the president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.