Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature have been mulling over education legislation over the past month. They passed a series of controversial laws, including the so-called ‘don’t say gay’ bill. A less publicized law is the one making technical changes to the way Florida’s public colleges and universities work with accrediting agencies, the nonprofit organizations that verify college quality and decide whether students can pay for their education using l federal financial aid. The changes could undermine accrediting bodies’ ability to protect students from underperforming colleges, leading to poorer student outcomes, fewer college graduates and more student loan defaults.
The law requires colleges and universities to seek a new accrediting agency every five to ten years. The law also allows these institutions to sue accreditors if they are “adversely affected by retaliatory action taken against a post-secondary institution by an accrediting agency or association.” As part of their job, accreditors are required to tell institutions if the education they provide is not good enough. Taking actions that could negatively impact an institution ensures that students do not attend poor quality programs. It’s like having your favorite restaurant allowed to sue the health inspector for citing health code violations in the restaurant’s kitchen.
What do accreditors do and why is it important?
One of the main roles of accrediting bodies is to ensure that institutions provide an education of acceptable quality. For example, ensuring that the institution employs properly trained and qualified faculty, ensuring that students receive sufficient academic support, and that students actually graduate from the school. Encouraging institutions to constantly switch between accrediting bodies, potentially allowing them to hide poor quality education, is terrible for students.
Part of the impetus for this law appears to have been issues raised by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), the agency that currently accredits most colleges and universities in Florida. SACSOC had requested about possible undue political influence exerted on Florida State University and the University of Florida by state education officials. In addition to teaching quality, accreditors ensure that colleges and universities can operate without political interference.
Accreditation is meant to protect students by ensuring that the programs they enroll in provide a quality education. It also ensures that students can receive federal financial aid, which is not available to students attending an unaccredited institution. Without federal financial aid, which includes Pell Grants and Federal Student Loans, many/most colleges nationwide would be forced to close. By requiring institutions to seek a new accreditor every five years, this new law encourages underperforming institutions to seek accreditors who will accredit lower standards while threatening those with higher standards of retaliation if they do their jobs properly. .
The provision for Florida schools to sue their accrediting body for any action taken that negatively impacts the school is likely to make potential new accrediting bodies reluctant to take on Florida schools. The law does not clearly specify what is considered “retaliatory action”, which makes it unclear which actions of the accreditor would violate it.
Since accreditors help ensure school quality, accreditors would be failing in their duty if they did not sometimes take actions that could negatively impact an institution. For example, a for-profit college in Florida has already been convicted of use strippers to entice students to enroll in programs that offered a poor education, all to make sure the college could get the student Pell Grant and student loans. Public colleges, fortunately, have rarely acted so badly. But making it harder for accreditors to hold institutions accountable makes it harder to maintain educational standards and political influence outside of Florida higher education. If notifying schools and students of areas of concern could result in legal action, it would prevent accreditors from doing their job effectively.
What impact will this have on students?
Students rely on the accreditation of their school. Without it, they might not be able to access financial aid, transfer credits to other institutions, or have their undergraduate work accepted as suitable for graduate school applications. Some professional licensing boards will not allow graduates of unaccredited programs to sit for licensure; the ramifications are nearly endless. By giving schools the ability to sue their accreditors, some accrediting agencies may refuse to work with Florida schools, potentially leaving enrolled students stranded with no transferable credits and no access to financial support. Or it means accreditors won’t do what they’re supposed to do to ensure acceptable quality levels, which also puts students at risk.
Obtaining accreditation is a colossal undertaking for any school. That’s why most schools don’t change accreditors unless they absolutely have to. The transition process can also take several years, during which the school will have to work with two different accreditors at the same time, possibly with two different sets of standards.
The bill allows institutions to stay with their current accreditation if they cannot obtain a new one before their current accreditation period expires. So, after large amounts of effort and money have been expended, colleges in Florida might find themselves back where they started.
Florida colleges deserve the certainty of working with accreditors to ensure the education they provide is of high quality. Students deserve to know that someone is making sure that the college they attend will provide them with a high quality education. This law frustrates both of these objectives.
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