Showdown in the Swamp

Marina Ziemnick

CounterCurrent: Week of 7/24

In discussions about higher education reform, all roads lead to accreditation. Do you think that the answer to the decline in American academia is to start new universities? Time to talk about accreditation. Are you wondering why a college that produces dismal student outcomes is still allowed to suck up taxpayer dollars? Probably because an accreditor turned a blind eye to its failures.

Accreditors not only serve as the gatekeepers for higher education—they are some of the few actors who have the power to single-handedly change the behavior of America’s colleges and universities. A university’s accreditation status affects both its access to government funding and its reputation as a serious institution of higher education, so when accreditors speak, university administrators listen.

Unfortunately, most accreditors seem entirely uninterested in improving the landscape of American higher education. Instead, America’s accreditors are satisfied with repeatedly rubber-stamping the colleges within their portfolios while shutting down innovators’ attempts to open new colleges. When they do choose to exercise their power to shape universities’ behavior, accreditors often focus more on imposing progressive ideology than on upholding academic standards, as discussed in the National Association of Scholars’ 2021 Freedom to Learn policy recommendations.

But it’s a lot easier to talk about the problems with accreditation than to come up with possible solutions. That’s why so many people in the academic world have been watching with great interest Florida’s new law targeting accreditation practices in the Sunshine State.

The law takes advantage of a 2019 reform that allowed colleges to seek accreditation from any of the seven existing regional accreditors rather than requiring them to remain with the accreditor formerly assigned to their region. This change enabled colleges to escape accreditors who abuse their power by pushing ideological agendas or meddling in academic decisions. The Florida law goes one step further by requiring all public colleges and universities within the state to change accreditors each renewal cycle, which simultaneously loosens the grip that power-hungry accreditors have over the colleges within their portfolio and prevents colleges from relying on rubber-stamp accreditors who ignore their failures.

The new Florida law is a great opportunity to determine whether a simple change could solve some of the deep-rooted problems in the current accreditation system. But Biden’s Department of Education (ED) seems determined to end the experiment before it can even begin. Last week, ED issued new guidance on college accreditation that specifically targets the Florida law and requires that any switch in accreditor be pre-approved by the Department. An official blog article accompanying the guidance explained that ED will also “assess whether the institution’s desire to change accreditors is voluntary.”

In this week’s featured article, Texas Public Policy Foundation Senior Policy Analyst Andrew Gillen breaks down the faulty logic behind the Biden administration’s new guidance. The administration claims that the freedom to choose accreditors will start a “race to the bottom”—but as Gillen explains, the reasoning falls apart because the Department of Education controls the bottom. Accreditors must be approved by the Department, so ED bears the responsibility for weeding out rubber-stamp accreditors. In Gillen’s words, “if there is a race to the bottom and if that leads to a lack of accountability for colleges, it means the Department of Education is failing in its responsibility to police the accreditors.”

The Biden administration’s concern about whether the decision to change accreditors is voluntary is similarly nonsensical. Setting aside the fact that the very decision to seek and maintain accreditation is technically voluntary, the Florida law in no way requires colleges to choose a particular accreditor. Florida colleges can choose any regional accreditor that they please (a freedom that has only existed since 2019)—the only limitation is that they may not choose the same accreditor two cycles in a row. What’s more, ED itself restricts accreditation decisions by approving some accreditors and not others. As Gillen puts it, “according to the Biden administration’s twisted logic, when ED tells a college it can’t use an accreditor, it’s voluntary, but if Florida does the exact same thing, it’s involuntary.”

Gillen concludes the article by offering Florida a piece of friendly advice:

[The Biden administration hopes to] convince courts that the Florida law violates U.S. law by engaging in some truly astounding rhetorical jujitsu… But I honestly hope Florida (and its colleges) takes another route and fights back in court. Accreditation is simply too important to allow its problems to fester. By fighting and winning in court, Florida could expose the illogical position of the Biden administration and help improve the accreditation system for the whole country.

Whatever the outcome, the stand-off between Florida and Biden’s Department of Education will be worth watching.

Until next week.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications Associate Marina Ziemnick. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Joshua J. Cotten, Public Domain

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