The National Association of Scholars (NAS) supports Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in his struggle against the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) effort to undermine Florida’s accreditation reform law.
In April 2022, Gov. DeSantis signed into law a higher education reform bill changing the accreditation system for the state’s public universities. The law, which took effect in the beginning of July, requires the universities to switch regional accreditors every accreditation cycle, thus ensuring that the universities are assessed by a new accrediting body every five years. As Gov. DeSantis stated during the bill-signing event, the accreditation law represents a crucial part of his plan to reform Florida’s universities and to bring them “more in line with … the state’s priorities.”
Accreditors serve as the gatekeepers for higher education, guaranteeing that universities provide a quality education and adequate resources to the students who pay for their services. Unfortunately, the nation’s major accrediting bodies seem all too satisfied with rubber-stamping the colleges within their portfolios, despite alarming deficiencies in many of the schools’ curricula and programming. When they do exercise their oversight authority, their interventions often appear politically motivated. Notably, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges, Florida universities’ only option for regional accreditor prior to a 2019 USED rule erasing geographical boundaries on accreditation, interfered in Florida State University’s presidential search to veto conservative candidate Richard Corcoran.
Florida’s new accreditation law loosens the grip that ideologically-biased accreditors have on the state’s universities while simultaneously preventing universities from using rubber-stamp accreditors to hide failing programs and dismal student outcomes. The law offers a valuable opportunity for higher education reformers to observe whether requiring universities to switch accreditors can help shake both universities and accreditors out of the malaise and complacency in which they often operate.
Unfortunately, the Biden administration seems determined to undermine Florida's reform effort. On July 19, the Department of Education issued new guidance that requires universities to receive pre-approval from the ED in order to submit an application to a new accrediting agency. An accompanying article on the ED’s official blog made it clear that the guidance was a direct response to Florida’s new law, which the ED feared would create a “race to the bottom in quality standards” and “have a chilling effect on accrediting agencies.” As part of the pre-approval process, the ED stated that it would assess whether the requested change was “voluntary”—a requirement presumably designed to provide the ED with an automatic justification for rejecting every application from a Florida university.
Set aside for the moment the Orwellian nature of the ED’s perversion of the word “voluntary,” used to deny Florida the ability to choose its own accreditor. The ED’s concern about quality standards is deeply ironic given that the ED itself sets the standards that accrediting agencies must meet. All accrediting agencies must first be approved by the ED, so rubber-stamp accreditors only exist because the ED allows them to exist. If the ED is truly concerned about the quality of America’s colleges and universities, it ought to view the Florida law as an opportunity to determine which accreditors are most effectively doing their job. Rather than having a chilling effect, the law can provide accreditors with an incentive to raise their standards, knowing that their assessments of universities will receive greater scrutiny than before and being freed from any pressure to please university administrators in order to hold on to their clientele.
The National Association of Scholars urges Gov. DeSantis to fight back against the ED’s effort to undermine Florida’s accreditation reform. The Biden administration’s rationale for opposing the law is woefully flawed, and if its concerns materialize, it will only be because the ED has failed to successfully vet the existing accrediting agencies.
NAS also encourages Gov. DeSantis to consider adopting new tactics to achieve the same goal. One route that Florida could take is to amend the law to establish a separate state accreditation requirement that exists concurrently with the federal requirement but is instead tied to state funding. This would enable Florida to still require universities to change accreditors while preventing the ED from meddling in their decisions, as the move to switch accreditors would no longer be connected to the federal accreditation requirement. In addition to bypassing the ED’s convoluted pre-approval process, such an emendation would add an additional layer of accountability for Florida’s universities and would further Gov. DeSantis’ goal to bring the universities in line with state priorities.
Whatever the outcome of the confrontation with the Biden administration, NAS commends Florida for its effort to reform such a vital—and woefully broken—component of our system of higher education. While Florida’s accreditation reform is only one of many needed changes, its legislation provides a model for other states to follow as they seek to improve their public universities.