Paul Levy and Kyle Beltramini: Florida Challenges the College Accreditation Empire

In April, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed S.B. 7044, a higher education bill that packs a powerful punch.

Higher education accreditation may seem a ho-hum bit of insider baseball dictated at the federal level. But with Governor DeSantis’s signature, Florida has done what seemed impossible. It refused to grin and bear this intrusion on state and local governance.

Within the legislation is a requirement for the state’s public colleges and universities to leave their current, regionally assigned accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), and find another. In doing so, the bill upends the longstanding system of regional monopolies that locks schools into the authority of a geographically assigned regulatory agency. With the element of choice comes pressure on the accreditors to exercise greater fairness or lose market share.

Since the six regional higher education accreditors currently control access to over $116 billion in student loan funding, for most schools, the accreditor’s will is a matter of financial survival. Hitherto, schools had no opportunity to leave an accreditor that they found capricious, unfair, or inappropriately controlling.

Industry insiders argue that accreditors deserve their plenipotentiary authority because they provide unique assurance that taxpayers’ investments only flow to reputable schools that offer a high-quality education. We are told that without the active oversight of accreditors, predatory institutions will mislead applicants and waste taxpayer money.

But accreditors are unreliable judges of quality. There are, for example, nearly 50 four-year, nonprofit colleges and universities that have four-year graduation rates of 20 percent or less and still receive accreditation from SACSCOC. It is not uncommon to find accredited schools that saddle their graduates with crippling debt, graduate less than one in ten students on time, or spend more on marketing than financial aid. It is an implausible claim that this oversight authority is working as intended when student loan debt has nearly doubled to $1.75 trillion in the past 10 years.

In reality, accreditors have a long history of frustrating attempts to improve educational quality or have been absent from the oversight that really matters. In the early 2000s, SACSCOC placed Campbell University on probation because it had a standard teaching load of 15 hours per week rather than SACSCOC’s mandated 12 hours. Campbell was forced to consolidate class sections, with previously small class sizes growing to 60 or more students. In 2013, when Florida legislators attempted to streamline the state’s general education requirements, SACSCOC stymied their efforts by demanding final approval. And worse yet, in 2017, as the trade journal Inside Higher Ed reported, “The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sponsored fake classes for nearly two decades, giving students, many of them athletes, credit for courses never taught by instructors.” Where was SACSCOC all that time?

This lackluster protection of student success is perplexing, given SACSCOC’s willingness to wade into matters of governance. In 2013, when then-Gov. Rick Scott suggested that Florida A&M University should suspend its president following a student hazing death, SACSCOC threatened the institution’s accreditation status because of what it viewed as Governor Scott’s undue influence. SACSCOC’s president boasted, “I did write the governor and tell him back off.” In the previous year, SACSCOC put the University of Virginia “on warning” after its Board of Visitors—which by state statute has complete authority over the hiring and firing of the president—sought and obtained the president’s resignation. In other words, SACSCOC privileged its own judgment over the authority of state law and the board.

Governor DeSantis’s signature on S.B. 7044 put an end to this accreditor’s party.

Florida’s latest efforts will not be enough to correct all the problems with accreditation: It needs a comprehensive overhaul at the federal level. But given the reluctance Congress has shown, it may be time to look to the states. By becoming the first state to require public institutions of higher education to change their accreditor, Florida has a chance to strike a blow against the regional monopolies that accreditors hold. With their fiefdoms threatened, perhaps individual accreditors will be pushed to compete, specialize, or innovate—or be consigned to the dustbin of history, as a better system of quality assurance emerges.

Paul S. Levy is a founder and managing partner of JLL Partners and served on the University of Pennsylvania Board of Trustees.

Kyle Beltramini is a policy research fellow for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. The piece originally ran at RealClearEducation.

Share this story on Facebook or Twitter or Send in a Text Message::