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Legislation flowing from the Florida state house will require colleges to change accreditors, a process that is already underway.

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The Florida Department of Education and the chancellor of the State University System of Florida gathered the leaders of nearly 40 state institutions in Tallahassee Dec. 7 for a closed-door meeting whose purpose remains unclear.

Neither the state Department of Education nor the chancellor’s office responded to multiple requests for comment or for a meeting agenda, attendee list and other details.

The Florida Board of Governors has provided only vague statements on the meeting.

“The presidents of the State University System and the Florida College System met on Wednesday to discuss System-wide educational goals regarding accreditation and 2+2 articulation. It is critical the two public higher educational systems in Florida work collaboratively to share best practices on issues which greatly benefit Florida’s students,” read one statement from the Board of Governors, which was provided by a university source rather than board officials.

Inside Higher Ed contacted more than 20 colleges and universities seeking details about last week’s meeting. Some officials noted their institution’s absence; others declined comment or never responded to inquiries. But some sources suggested that the purpose of last week’s secretive meeting was recast at the last minute following scrutiny by the local media.

“There was a plan to talk about the accreditation issue in great detail,” said one college official briefed on the meeting and granted anonymity to discuss the matter. “But after The Tallahassee Democrat broke the news about the meeting, they—presumably the people at the Department of Education—decided to retreat and did not go into much detail at all, just generally discussing the legislation that had been passed. I assume that means there’s another meeting in the future.”

Whether or not accreditation was officially on last week’s meeting agenda, it is clear that Florida is shopping around for new accreditors for its state colleges and universities, and has been for a while. The move follows legislation passed earlier this year that requires institutions to change accreditors at the end of each accreditation cycle, which commonly lasts eight to 10 years. Now—despite concerns raised by the U.S. Department of Education—Florida officials are pushing ahead with plans to change accreditors as some institutions approach the end of their cycle.

Switching Accreditors

Florida officials have been meeting with accreditors since early summer, sources at various accrediting bodies told Inside Higher Ed. And according to a little-covered public meeting in August, state officials and college presidents seem especially keen on one organization as a potential accreditor: the Higher Learning Commission, the largest of the nation’s major accrediting bodies.

The Higher Learning Commission did not respond to a request for comment.

Video of the Board of Governors meeting in August provides the clearest picture of the state’s intentions. A system official made a presentation on the accreditation process, and several college presidents shared their thoughts. In fact, seven state higher ed leaders mentioned HLC as the preferred accreditation destination, including the presidents of the University of Central Florida and Florida Polytechnic University, which could potentially be the first two institutions to switch accreditors under the new cycle.

According to board documents, the process of changing accreditors requires four steps. First, the U.S. Department of Education must approve the switch to a new accreditor; then institutions apply for membership with the new accreditor while maintaining accreditation with the current one, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Once an institution has received membership with a new accreditor, the Department of Education is notified. Finally, colleges switching accreditors must remain in good standing with SACSCOC until the ED acknowledges the accreditation change.

The process of switching accreditors will cost between $11 million and $13 million annually, according to board documents, though the annual expense of maintaining accreditation is expected to hover around $250,000.

Florida’s requirement to switch accreditors seemed to grow out of concerns raised by SACSCOC, which accredits numerous state institutions. Before the legislation passed, the accreditor had requested information about a potential conflict of interest at Florida State University, which considered Richard Corcoran for its presidency despite his role on the system’s Board of Governors. SACSCOC also raised questions about the University of Florida, which initially prevented professors from testifying against the state in a legal case challenging voting rights restrictions before changing course amid criticism. Critics have accused Florida lawmakers of pushing the accreditation legislation in response to SACSCOC oversight.

The Department of Education made it easier for Florida to divorce from SACSCOC in 2020 when it changed a rule to allow accrediting agencies to expand beyond their historical regions. That meant that geography no longer mattered, and Florida lawmakers spurred state institutions to move away from SACSCOC with the legislation they passed this year.

Some on the Florida Board of Governors seem eager for that relationship to end.

“Frankly, I think we’ve suffered a little bit from a body who currently oversees accreditation who views the Florida system as captive, and the Florida universities as captive,” Florida Board of Governors vice chair Eric Silagy said in August.

Others emphasized that ED’s rule change has left some accreditors seeking to expand, meaning they’re open for business: “It’s not just us shopping for them. I believe they’re now shopping for us,” said board member Alan Levine.

SACSCOC addressed its potential split with Florida’s colleges and universities in a brief statement.

“It is unfortunate that institutions that did not seek the opportunity to change accreditors are having to spend the time, energy and money doing so. All of the institutions in Florida have been invaluable partners in ensuring quality among their institutional peers and, should they leave, their input will be sorely missed,” SACSCOC president Belle Whelan told Inside Higher Ed by email.

A Costly and Complex Process

Higher education experts say the process of changing accreditors is laborious and expensive.

Judith Eaton, who retired in 2020 after 23 years as president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, called the accreditation process “demanding by design.” Institutions must submit self-studies and host officials for site visits, which can take a year or two and involves forming committees of faculty and staff members and hiring consultants to guide the process.

“You have to provide evidence that you meet the standards, and the standards are significant in their number and at times their complexity. Even going through a renewal of accreditation is a big investment for a college or university,” Eaton said. “Changing accreditors is more complex.”

Though it is uncommon for institutions to switch accreditors if they are in good standing, Eaton noted that there were historical restrictions on the process prior to ED’s 2020 rule change eliminating geographic boundaries.

Barbara Brittingham, who led the New England Commission of Higher Education from 2008 until her retirement in 2020, noted that while accreditation requirements tend to be similar across organizations, there are often nuances that can be challenging to navigate. She compared learning the requirements of one accreditor over another to the difference between learning Spanish versus French. While there are similarities, anyone seeking to be part of the new landscape must fully adopt its language.

Brittingham suggested that there are few practical reasons for switching accreditors.

While Florida education officials seem determined to push ahead on switching accreditors, opponents of the legislation hope to see them reverse course. Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida, said the group testified against the legislation, arguing that changing accreditors is an onerous, unnecessary process.

“We advocated strongly against this from the beginning. We are furious that Florida’s colleges and universities even have to deal with this. We think it shows poor policy, poor planning and an inability to listen to community stakeholders that this bill was ever passed in the first place,” Gothard said.

Ultimately, Gothard thinks the move was about retaliatory politics.

“What we believe is this had nothing to do with good education policy,” Gothard said. “This was about firing a shot across the bow of SACSCOC. And elected leaders, particularly the conservatives in the Florida Legislature, were willing to sink the higher education system to score those political points. Now they’re having to figure out how to fix the problem that they created.”

So what’s next for accreditation in Florida? Neither the Florida Department of Education nor the Board of Governors is willing to say, leaving residents of the Sunshine State in the dark.

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