Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Contributor/Getty Images
The Florida Senate Education Committee approved a bill Tuesday that would require public colleges and universities in the state to switch accrediting agencies at the end of each accreditation cycle.
Earning accreditation—which typically lasts between 8 and 10 years, with a review at the halfway point—is a years-long process. If passed in both chambers of the Florida Legislature, the new bill would create major financial and logistical headaches for institutions, experts say. It could also stymie the kind of innovation and improvement that often result from strong and continuous college-accreditor partnerships.
Supporters of the bill say that colleges and universities could benefit from a fresh perspective, News Service of Florida reported.
“A different perspective from a different regional accreditor would be helpful to our universities,” Republican state senator Manny Diaz Jr. said during the Senate Education Committee meeting Tuesday.
But the bill’s critics—which include several accrediting agencies—believe that it could be an attempt at political retaliation by the Senate Republicans, the majority party, against the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the regional accrediting agency for Florida institutions.
The agency recently wrote two requests for information in close proximity. In one letter, the agency sought information about potential conflict of interest when Florida State University considered Richard Corcoran, a member of the system Board of Governors, in its recent presidential search. The second went to the University of Florida after the institution barred three professors from testifying against state voting rights restrictions. Accrediting agencies send out these types of information requests after they learn about something that might put an institution out of compliance with the agency's standards.
“I think that they’re upset because we stepped into their business,” said Belle Wheelan, president of SACSCOC. “While they may be angry with me for doing my job, they’re going to be angry with whatever accreditor they go to, because those are requirements that we all have.”
Barbara Brittingham, former president of the New England Commission of Higher Education, said that NECHE would have likely made the same requests of those institutions.
“As an accreditor, you can’t ignore things that raise legitimate questions,” Brittingham said. “If SACS had a legitimate question, there’s a very good chance that another accreditor would have the same question.”
Even if the bill is passed, Brittingham doesn’t believe it could take effect.
“I can’t imagine that this would go through—it’s just so unrealistic,” she said.
A requirement to switch accreditors would not have been possible until recently, when the Department of Education started recognizing regional and national accrediting agencies as “institutional accreditors,” opening up the opportunity for institutions to seek accreditation from agencies outside their geographical region. But there’s another clause in the bill that may cause outside agencies to pause before taking on Florida institutions.
The bill states that higher education institutions may take legal action against their accreditors if they are “negatively impacted by retaliatory action” from that accreditor. It’s unclear exactly what actions would be considered retaliatory under the bill.
“Many see this as a bullying tactic, as a way of intimidating accrediting agencies to say, ‘Watch out, we don’t want your political interference in this process,’” said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities. “And yet the accreditors are concerned because they saw the potential for political overreach on the part of state officials.”
Pasquerella doesn’t see any benefit to switching accrediting agencies often. She believes the new requirement would be a “detriment” to Florida colleges and universities.
“I’m trying to imagine being on a campus where, in the process of preparing your self-study report for your five-year review, you’re also in the process of preparing a report to apply to a new accreditor, who then may or may not accept you,” Pasquerella said. “This will just exacerbate the administrative burden that adds to the cost of higher education.”
Typically, colleges are accredited and re-accredited on 10-year cycles, and they face a review period in the fifth year of those cycles. Accreditation cycles can be shorter if the institution faces standards violations or other problems. The new requirement would not only eat up administrators’ time, but also cash, Pasquerella said.
“Take a look at the $10,000 application fee and the cost that it will impose on institutions if, say, a Florida institution is being accredited by the [Western Association of Schools and Colleges],” Pasquerella said. “Those reviewers are from the Western part of the United States, and so to fly them across the country, to provide accommodations for travel—these are all hidden costs.”
Experts are also concerned about what might happen if an institution isn’t able to find a new accreditor before its existing accreditation expires. Higher education institutions must be accredited by a federally recognized agency in order for their students to qualify for federal financial aid. Without accreditation—and thus without the ability to offer federal aid—institutional enrollments languish.
The Florida Board of Governors, the University of Central Florida, Florida State University and Florida A&M University declined to comment on the pending legislation.