Among those who are knowledgeable about higher education accreditation and licensure, Wyoming has often been viewed as a renegade -- a place where diploma mills and other unaccredited institutions can award degree with little or no oversight.
State officials have argued that the perception isn't entirely fair. But they also recognize, as State Sen. Tex Boggs puts it, that "the reality is whatever the perception is," and that Wyoming's reputation as a haven for academically suspect institutions was damaging the overall view of the state.
So after much deliberation and a year of study, Wyoming's Legislature approved legislation -- signed into law this month by Gov. Dave Freudenthal -- that bars private institutions from operating in the state unless they are accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Education Department (or actively seeking such accreditation).
Alan L. Contreras, who heads Oregon's Office of Degree Authorization and is an expert on diploma mills and unaccredited institutions, calls Wyoming one of the "seven sorry sisters"  -- states that "allow poor institutions to be approved to issue degrees." Wyoming has been one of a relatively few states that allow unaccredited institutions to operate and award degrees.
Private postsecondary institutions in the state are licensed by the state's Department of Education, which primarily oversees elementary and secondary education. Although the state took steps several years ago to toughen the department's oversight of such schools, Boggs said, insufficient staffing and expertise limited its ability to ensure quality. The bottom line, Boggs said, is that "we continued to have these institutions out there that were able to avoid having the kinds of standards that are associated with high quality instruction."
Last year, the Legislature's Interim Education Committee created a special panel,  headed by Boggs, to explore private school licensing. It first proposed legislation that would have restricted state licensure to institutions that were regionally accredited, but many for-profit institutions in Wyoming complained that that measure would have doomed them, since few career colleges have earned the stamp of approval from the country's six regional accrediting agencies.
Acknowledging that a requirement for regional accreditation might be "unfair," Boggs said, Wyoming lawmakers amended their proposal to require accreditation by a regional or national accreditor recognized by the U.S. Education Department. "There are institutions out there, agencies out there, that have accepted the responsibility for assessing the quality of private institutions," Boggs said. "It makes sense for us to turn over that responsibility to those existing agencies" instead of having the state's education department try to license institutions itself.
Officials from several privately run postsecondary institutions in the state, including Preston, Rutherford, and Halifax Universities, testified at a hearing before the special panel last August that requiring accreditation would damage their institutions.
Administrators at Preston, which awards degrees to students in dozens of countries through partnerships with foreign institutions, argued that American accreditors group generally shun institutions that educate students abroad, and the president of Halifax "expressed his opinion the legislation would close good state businesses, which he suggested is a mistake," according to minutes of the meeting. Others objected to the high cost of the accreditation process, which some said they would be unable to afford.
Those objections, Boggs said, paled in comparison to legislators' concerns about the state's academic reputation and the fact that graduates of Wyoming's unaccredited institutions were disqualified for jobs and often unable to transfer their credits to colleges because of rules in other states. "Students who invested time and money in a diploma or degree should have a reasonable opportunity to be employed or get an education," said Boggs.
Both chambers of the Legislature approved the measure by overwhelming margins, and the governor signed it into law March 10.
George Gollin, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign whose public service work on accreditation and licensure issues  has made him an expert on diploma mills, said that with the new law, Wyoming has "entered the modern age in terms of paying attention to higher education." The measure, he says, "looks to be a good law," although he said he "wouldn't be surprised" if a provision that allows unaccredited institutions to continue to operate for five years while they apply for accreditation becomes "just a way of staying in business, before these places move to other states" that have lax laws.