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In my poli sci days, my favorite role at conferences was “discussant.” I was a reasonably good presenter and a decent chair, but I really shone in the discussant role. Over the past few days, listening to keynotes, I could feel those old discussant reflexes coming to life again.

On Wednesday, Diane Auer Jones was the keynote speaker at Middle States. She’s the major higher ed policy person at the U.S. Department of Education, and she came to talk about recent issues the department has been addressing. Some were crowd-pleasers, like reducing the number of questions on the FAFSA form and allowing direct access to IRS data to reduce the number of verifications. She riffed on a few bureaucratic absurdities, like rejecting an entire organization’s application for accreditation on the grounds that it included electronic signatures rather than "wet" ones. That’s plainly silly, and any headway there would be welcome.

But then she mentioned a rule change that struck me as a sort of legalistic Trojan horse. As she put it, the most recent session of negotiated rule making (“neg reg”) “dissolved the distinction between regional and national accreditors” and broke the geographic monopolies of the various regional accreditors.

That may sound obscure and nerdy, but so did section 401(k) of the tax code. Sometimes smallish-sounding changes have outsize consequences.

For institutional accreditation (as opposed to programmatic accreditation, like for nursing), the preferred accreditors are the regional ones, each of which enjoys a de facto monopoly in a given state or states. There are exceptions for branch campuses in different states, but the basic point still stands. In Massachusetts, for instance, we worked with NEASC (now NECHE), and in New Jersey we work with Middle States. Each regional accreditor is supported by dues paid by its members. Regional accreditation is the key to access to federal financial aid money, as well as recognition of transfer credit.

The structure of a dues-supported institution passing judgment on its members could look like a conflict of interest, but that conflict has historically been constrained by the grant of regional monopoly. A college in, say, New York, effectively had no choice but to work with Middle States if it wanted access to financial aid dollars. It couldn’t take its dues elsewhere. Local monopoly power served to insulate accreditors from market pressures from, say, unhappy members voting with their budgets. No human endeavor is perfectly neutral, but having every player kick in money to pay the umpire aboveboard kept the umpire honest.

But if regional accreditors suddenly have to compete with each other, and with national accreditors, the game changes. If a given college isn’t happy with requirements from its own accreditor, it could shop around for another one. (In response to an audience question about whether it’s possible that the changes would lead to accreditor shopping, Auer Jones replied, “Of course it’s possible.”) An accreditor that starts losing business will do what it has to do to survive. With the old regional monopoly gone, it loses its insulation from market pressures. Now, each player gets to choose his own umpire, and pay him.

Earlier this week, I disagreed with Karen Stout’s suggestion that accreditation is about excellence; I took the view that it’s about basic standards. Here, I’m holding the same position but arguing against a critique from the other side: upholding basic standards requires insulation from market pressures. Otherwise, the conflict of interest would drive a race to the bottom. To my mind, accreditation isn’t about optimization, and it shouldn’t be for sale. (If I had to side with one or the other, I’d be on Team Stout, on the grounds that optimization at least leans in a positive direction.) The financial crisis that catalyzed the Great Recession came about because regulators were rendered powerless against the regulated. For that matter, part of the reason our politics are so toxic is that in many cases, officeholders get to choose their voters. When you get the lines of authority wrong, all manner of shenanigans ensue.

To be fair, there’s some sand in the system that may slow down the race to the bottom, at least for a while. In some states, state regulations and/or licensing requirements may limit colleges’ ability to shop around for a bit. But if the new federal rules stick around long enough, the gravitational pull of market pressure will be too great to resist; the few who try to hold out will find their less circumspect competitors eating their lunch. As Madison put it, if men were angels, no government would be necessary. But they aren’t, so it is.

I give Auer Jones credit for having the courage to stand in front of hundreds of people at a conference of a regional accreditor and tell everyone, to their faces, that she’s happily threatening the organization’s existence. If nothing else, that takes guts. But I’m still having trouble seeing this change as anything other than a disaster in waiting.

The discussant’s job on a panel was to engage the audience in the conversation. So, here goes. Should colleges be set free to choose (and pay) their own accreditors?

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