A Win for Accreditation Choice in North Carolina

New legislation promises to defang unelected edu-crats.

On Sept. 29, North Carolina governor Roy Cooper signed House Bill 8. HB8 will probably be best known for adding the Pornography Age Verification Enforcement Act to state law, but it also marks a win for accreditation choice in North Carolina.

Accreditation is the process by which a college demonstrates to the public that it meets basic requirements established by federal law, plus other requirements established by its accreditor. The problem for colleges in many states is that accreditation is required for access to federal student-aid programs, but state law or regulations allow institutions no choice of accreditor.

Armed with monopoly power, accreditors interfere in governance, admissions, and more. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, commonly known as SACS, was, until recently, the monopolist across the Southeast and became a prime source of interference in university governance. Meanwhile, other so-called regional accreditors held their own fiefdoms in other parts of the country.

The Trump administration, under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, broke the accreditors’ regional monopolies by redefining their scope. Now, they all are effectively “national” bodies, able to accredit anywhere in the country.

North Carolina now requires each public college to pursue a change of accreditor every cycle—about once a decade.Colleagues at The Heritage Foundation and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have joined me in proposing statutory, regulatory, and state reforms to further dismantle the cartel and improve America’s accreditation system.

While the federal change opened the door for choice in North Carolina, HB8 goes further, requiring each public college to pursue a change of accreditor every cycle—about once a decade. If the college does not advance to candidacy status at least three years before expiration, the college may retain its existing accreditor, so no college will get stuck without one.

Changing accreditors is good for accountability. Just as companies should change auditors every so often for fresh eyes, a college should not get too cozy with its regulator.

The law gives choice to private colleges, too. Like public colleges, they may choose from among any formerly regional accreditor. They also may choose the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, which accredits Christian institutions. However, private colleges do not have to change accreditors.

North Carolina now joins West Virginia and Florida in taking advantage of the flexibility provided by DeVos. West Virginia does not require colleges to change from their existing accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, but it permits colleges to choose any accreditor recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. That includes additional options beyond even North Carolina’s list.

Florida also requires public colleges to change accreditors. After the U.S. Department of Education resisted the Sunshine State’s law in order to coerce colleges to stay with SACS, Florida sued, challenging the whole regime of third-party accreditation as an unconstitutional delegation of power. The department has since let the first couple of Florida colleges change accreditors after all, perhaps to blunt part of the lawsuit, but the issues remain in litigation.

Texas is also considering competition in accreditation, as it should. Diversity in accreditation in Texas should follow the diverse options across the country. To answer those who feel a bit snooty about accreditors that are not among the former regionals, Texas could follow North Carolina’s lead and open choice to just those former regional bodies. This would be a great advance over one-size-fits-all accreditation as it currently exists in Texas.

Several other states, including South Carolina, maintain outdated laws and/or regulations that no longer align with federal flexibility. These provisions inhibit competition and innovation, and such states should follow suit to improve postsecondary education for their citizens.

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