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The Middle States Commission on Higher Education said Monday that it would become the second regional accrediting agency to take advantage of newly granted federal authority to consider colleges and universities from outside their traditional geographic boundaries.

Middle States may not have been the first out of the gate in taking advantage of new Education Department rules that created the possibility of open competition among accrediting agencies; that distinction went to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges' Senior College and University Commission, which said in February that it would "broaden [its] reach" by letting institutions it currently accredits either move their campus or start a new institution out of the region. WSCUC said it might eventually expand farther.

The Middle States commission, which accredits institutions in six states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, imposed no such limits on its new action, saying it would consider applications from colleges and universities elsewhere in the United States. The agency's officials also said they would in January 2021 lift a years-long moratorium on accrediting colleges outside the United States.

The Middle States commission's president, Heather F. Perfetti, noted that the agency already does accreditation work in most states and in 94 countries, though most of that activity is limited to overseeing programs or campuses operated in those places by institutions within its regional boundaries. "The commission, as a result, determined that it no longer needs to be defined by the simplicity of regional geographic boundaries," she said in a statement.

While the Middle States action came days after new Education Department rules that created the possibility of open competition among accrediting agencies took effect, agency officials said the decision to expand was "prompted" but not "driven" by that new federal authority.

“The phased approach of the proposal provides a very strategic and thoughtful way of moving the commission forward to both expand domestically and internationally,” said Katherine S. Conway-Turner, president of the State University of New York's Buffalo State College and a member of the commission. “I strongly endorsed the proposal and think it is the right direction that builds on the commission’s thoughtful discussions.”

Middle States' international broadening will be phased in "in targeted areas and then more expansively thereafter," the commission said in a news release. The agency currently accredits 17 international institutions that are a mix of foreign institutions with U.S. bases within the Middle States region and some with international degree-granting authority.

The rewrite of the federal rules governing accreditation that enabled the Middle States move was largely supported by higher education leaders but strongly opposed by consumer advocates, who feared that any increased "competition" among accreditors would, almost inevitably, lead to a "race to the bottom" in which colleges and universities would seek out agencies that applied less scrutiny and asked them to meet fewer accountability requirements.

Jamienne S. Studley, president of the Western accreditor, said that in the four months since its announcement, the agency has been in "active discussions about next steps with several U.S. institutions of different types beyond our historic region." Studley said several international institutions have also expressed interest in applying for its accreditation, and WASC has begun considering the eligibility of three of them.

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