How The End Of Regional Accreditors Might Impact You
Over the summer, new rules from the U.S. Department of Education on college accreditation went into effect. The new rules include:
- Eliminating geographical boundaries for accreditors.
- Making it easier for colleges to get program approvals or make institutional changes.
- Loosening accreditor compliance standards.
- Easing the path for some new accreditors to become recognized.
- Giving accreditors more leeway over sanctions.
- Requiring financially shaky colleges to submit teach-out plans sooner.
In short: these rules will grant more freedom to accreditors and institutions. But there is one rule that we will primarily focus on today: eliminating geographical boundaries for accreditors.
For decades, regional accreditors have been the gold standard for accreditation over national accreditors. In the past, schools have turned to national accreditation when they couldn’t achieve regional accreditation.
Under the new rules, regional accreditors will lose the “regional” title and have it replaced with “institutional.” With this change, accreditors will no longer be constrained to operating in a geographical location, meaning they can partner with institutions in other areas of the country. It also means institutions will have a wider range of options when choosing which accreditations they seek.
One of the reasons the Department of Ed cited for implementing these rules is that most regional accreditors already operate outside of their geographic borders, typically through the accreditation of branch campuses and additional locations.
The Department states that the relaxed rules will “be less prescriptive and provide greater autonomy and flexibility to facilitate agility and responsiveness and promote innovation.” Schools and accreditors will be able to change rapidly while maintaining regulatory compliance.
What This Means For You
With the boundaries of regional accreditation eradicated, schools will have more autonomy when choosing who to partner with. Your school will be able to “accreditor shop,” or explore different accrediting bodies to find one that fits your institutional goals.
For example, if your school decides to transform to a fully online college, you would likely make substantial changes to your operations and might find that a different accreditation aligns better with your new structure.
As Cynthia Jackson-Hammond, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), said in an interview with Education Dive, there’s an opportunity for institutions to find accreditors that match their focus and goals. By lifting geographical restrictions, institutions can be more fluid in working with accreditors outside of their region, and there’s an opportunity for institutions to expand their levels of innovation. Because they have international or branch campuses outside their regions, institutions need to be able to look for accreditors who work well with them and know the standards associated with their mission.
Response To Criticism
Many critics of the new rulings are concerned that the added freedom granted to institutions and accreditors could negatively impact students. They’re wary that these new rules will lead to less regulation in a sector that some people have already called predatory.
Clare McCann, Deputy Director for Federal Higher Education Policy at New America, is concerned that the rules would allow underperforming schools to easily “change their mission or expand their footprint in a way that they’re not well-prepared to serve students.” She fears that colleges will be able to transform without oversight and be enabled to enroll and harm students without consequence.
Cynthia Jackson-Hammond (CHEA) rejects the notion that schools can switch accreditors to avoid oversight. She explains that every accreditor is recognized by the same standards and undergoes a “rigorous, consistent review process” to operate. She says it’s a misnomer that there are less rigorous accreditors in the marketplace.
The Ed Department has touted the rules as a method of giving colleges more room to experiment. Betsy DeVos said in a statement, “We rejected the idea that one-size-fits-all solutions make sense in a world where education needs continue to evolve.”
It’s worth noting that while these rules just went into effect over the summer, they were first created in 2019. As we’ve seen, our world can shift dramatically in an instant. Having more freedom and flexibility could be incredibly helpful for the education sector moving forward.
The pandemic is a fitting example that illustrates why colleges should be able to transform and adapt easier. It exposed the archaic operations of many institutions and has spurred a widespread evolution of education.
Of course, nobody could have predicted a global pandemic to break out just months later. The original rules were made to provide opportunities for options. And as online delivery becomes more expansive at the institutions, operations are changing as well.
Institutions and accreditors will now enter a feel out process as these new rules come into place. Soon, many schools will reevaluate their goals and take advantage of more accrediting options. Time will tell whether or not the freedom granted to accreditors and institutions will prove to be a positive or negative development for students.