Trustees | Trusteeship

College accreditation goes rogue: Another unaccountable system

THE HILL   |  February 14, 2017 by Anne D. Neal

Should federal agents be allowed to bully governors and interfere in state law and governance of colleges and universities? Absolutely not, but that’s exactly what is happening across the country.

In the latest chapter of this “man bites dog” story, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) — one of the six obscure but immensely powerful regional accrediting bodies authorized to serve as gatekeepers of federal financial aid — has gone on a rampage, meddling with state policymaking and the democratic process in both Kentucky and Alabama.

For months, the University of Louisville has been drowning in an ocean of controversies surrounding its sports program, finances, charitable activities, board, and president. Moody’s Investor Service downgraded its credit rating.

A grand jury and the NCAA have been investigating allegations that an assistant basketball coach hired prostitutes for players and recruits.

Amidst these mounting controversies, Republican Governor Matt Bevins decided it was time to start afresh, removing the old board and appointing a new one. Many disagreed with the action, but more than a few, including a majority of Kentucky legislators, acknowledged Bevin might be on the right track.

But accreditors seem to think they know more about what’s best for Kentucky than the state’s highest elected official. Rather than allowing state policymakers to work things out, SACS placed Louisville on probation and threatened its federal funding, alleging that the governor was inappropriately exerting “considerable external control and influence” that jeopardized the board’s responsibility.

The latest case of accreditor interference is in Alabama where SACS is now fighting Republican Governor Robert Bentley.  

This time they are taking issue with Bentley’s appointment of state college and university trustees and his power to sit as an ex officio member on public boards in the state. These actions, mind you, are authorized by long-standing state law, statutory power that governors hold in at least 11 states around the country.

The problem — as accreditors see it — is that the democratic process gets in the way.

What most people call a demand for accountability, accreditors see as “external interference” in the institution. Remember that accrediting review teams are comprised largely of administrators and faculty, the same stakeholders that benefit from the status quo. It’s no wonder that accreditors are far more oriented towards protecting those who are part of the system than listening to those who oversee it.

This typifies a pervasive problem with accreditation itself.

Accreditors are responsible for determining educational quality before approving the flow of federal dollars. Yet under their watch, hundreds of accredited public and private colleges and universities nationwide post abysmal graduation rates with little evidence of student learning.

Employers complain that college graduates lack essential skills and knowledge needed for the workforce. Student loan debt tops a trillion dollars. By virtually any measure, the accreditation system has been a costly failure.

It is true: college and university presidents and trustees need latitude to do their jobs. That doesn’t mean the state’s top elected official should stand idly by during a crisis. Unaccountable accrediting bodies should not have the right to overrule a governor or intervene in matters involving state law. Yet that is increasingly the norm.

It’s time to realize that this interference is more than just meddling: it goes to the very heart of federalism and raises urgent questions about the constitutionality of the accreditation system.

The president’s new task force on higher education regulation should put accreditor interference with federalism at the top of its agenda. And Congress, as it prepares to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, should seize the opportunity to hold out-of-control bureaucrats accountable.

A provision in the current Higher Education Act delegates blank check authority to accreditors to establish their own criteria and prevents the Secretary of Education from prescribing or restricting any of them. SACS and other accreditors invoke this proviso as they meddle in governance and local control at a level never envisioned by Congress as preconditions for Title IV funding.

California state task force recently called for an end to regional accreditation, demanding a quality assurance system that “respects boundaries established by state law.”

And a proposal by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni would give states the freedom to pursue educational innovation and simplify the gatekeeping process to ensure transparency and accountability for consumers.

Tweaking around the margins of accreditation isn’t good enough: Policymakers need to acknowledge the damage accreditation is doing to institutional quality, federalism, and the democratic process.  


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