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The U.S. Department of Education has given Florida SouthWestern State College approval to seek a new accreditor, setting in motion a state plan that will require its 40 public institutions to move away from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges.
Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, attributed the approval to a lawsuit the state brought in June challenging the Department of Education and the accrediting system. In his telling, the federal government blinked.
“The Biden Administration backed down & allowed a Florida college to seek new accreditation. We will continue to fight to protect our nation-leading higher education system. The federal government can’t use shadowy accreditors to dictate what’s best for our students,” DeSantis posted on X (formerly Twitter) last week, after Florida SouthWestern received approval to seek a new accreditor.
The Department of Education, however, said such requests simply take time to approve: “We began the review process once we received notification from Florida SouthWestern State College in January of this year. This is an iterative process that involves engaging with schools to obtain necessary information. We concluded this process this month,” an Education Department spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Regardless of whether the federal agency bowed to pressure or the months of review were due to the slow-grinding gears of bureaucracy (the agency remains short-staffed), the process of changing accreditors will now begin for Florida SouthWestern. And with a state law passed last year requiring all of Florida’s public colleges and universities to change accreditors every 10 years, whether they want to or not, the former two-year college in Fort Myers is the first domino to fall in what appears to be a massive migration on the horizon from SACS to other accrediting bodies.
When Republican state senator Manny Diaz Jr., now Florida’s education commissioner, crafted a bill last year to require state institutions to change accreditors every decade, he said, “A different perspective from a different regional accreditor would be helpful to our universities.”
The proposal was immediately met with suspicions that it was politically motivated, coming after SACS raised concerns about Richard Corcoran’s candidacy for the Florida State University presidency, while Corcoran was a member of the system’s Board of Governors, and the University of Florida’s plan to bar three professors from testifying on state voting rights restrictions. (Corcoran is now interim president of New College of Florida, and UF did allow the three professors to testify.)
The bill came on the heels of a 2020 change to federal regulations that eliminated the regional boundaries for accreditors, allowing colleges to join organizations beyond their physical location. Suddenly colleges could seek accreditors that might be a better fit, a move that seemed to appeal to Florida lawmakers when SACS raised questions about academic freedom. The changes also worried consumer advocates, who fretted that colleges might move not to seek a better fit but to find a more permissive accreditor.
Florida’s Accreditation Migration
Florida’s plan will see state colleges and universities switching accreditors in stages, beginning the process after their next fifth-year review or reaffirmation. According to the state’s lawsuit, more than half of the Florida’s public institutions will “change accreditors in the next two years.”
When Florida SouthWestern may begin its march away from SACS and to another accreditor is unclear. A Florida SouthWestern spokesperson said via email that the Department of Education notified the college on Aug. 18 that it could “pursue alternate institutional accreditation” and “the next steps are to review the application process and associated USDOE requirements related to changing our institutional accreditation.”
But Belle Wheelan, head of SACS, told Inside Higher Ed by email that she has “received no notification” from the Department of Education or the college itself on changing accrediting bodies.
For colleges and universities switching accreditors, there is a four-step process, as outlined at a Florida Board of Governors Meeting last August. First, institutions must receive approval from the Education Department to change accreditors—as Florida SouthWestern has done. After approval, colleges can apply to another accreditor but must maintain SACS accreditation. Once accepted by another accreditor, the college must notify the U.S. Department of Education. The final step is formal recognition from the federal agency on the accreditor change.
Florida’s 28 public two- and four-year colleges are overseen by the State Board of Education, while the 12-member State University System is under the Florida Board of Governors, but all 40 institutions will take part in a similar process when changing accrediting bodies, in accordance with the state law.
(The State Board of Education did not respond to a request for comment from Inside Higher Ed. And spokesperson for the Higher Learning Commission, which may be the new accreditor of choice for many Florida institutions, said by email the application process is not public, offering little insight into where things stand for Florida’s public institutions.)
A Lengthy and Expensive Process
Much of the plan for switching accreditors remains unclear, but a few key details, including the target destination, were discussed in a presentation to Florida’s Board of Governors this month.
The desired landing place for Florida institutions appears to be HLC, the largest of the nation’s accrediting bodies with around 1,000 member institutions. Last year’s Board of Governors presentation also included financial projections with the cost of switching accreditors coming in at $11 to 13 million annually for its 12 universities. Maintaining accreditation is expected to cost around $250,000 a year. (Cost estimates were not provided in a similar presentation to the State Board of Education last August, which also placed the Higher Learning Commission atop a list of recommended accreditors.)
Experts note that accreditation processes are time- and labor-intensive, with heavy workloads for university staff members tasked with guiding institutions through the challenge of making the change from one organization to the other.
Paul Gaston III, an emeritus Trustees Professor at Kent State University who has written at length on accreditation, also questioned the merits of the lawsuit Florida filed against the Department of Education, particularly “the repeated claims that there is no accountability for accreditors.” Gaston suggested that this diminishes the role of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity in establishing standards for accreditors, which he said is quite demanding.
Gaston added that it is rare for colleges to change accreditors, due to the time and costs involved. “I haven’t seen a case made for changing accreditors on the basis of good governance,” he said.
Peter Ewell, president emeritus of National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and an expert on accreditation, says that changing accreditors will be a laborious process for staff members who must familiarize themselves with new standards.
“It’s definitely a burden that is essentially imposed on the institution,” Ewell said.
In addition to the application process for switching accreditors, colleges must also conduct a self-study and host a team from the potential accreditor. And regardless of the differences among accrediting bodies, experts note such organizations have lengthy and demanding processes.
Some accreditors, Gaston points out, have accelerated processes to welcome new members.
“The Higher Learning Commission, as of this summer, has what they are calling an accelerated process for the initial accreditation of institutions that are in good standing by a historically recognized regional accreditor,” Gaston said. “I expect to see others introduce a change like that.”
Ewell also notes that the Florida law that compels public institutions to change accreditors every 10 years hasn’t yet affected campuses like Florida State University or the University of Florida. And given the political power of the alumni base and the boards at both institutions, Ewell wonders if organized resistance at the strongest institutions could force a change to state law.
The real test case, he said, will be at Florida’s most prominent institutions.
“When you get to Florida State University or the University of Florida, there will probably be pushback. And it’s not clear to me that the sitting governor is going to win that one,” Ewell said. “That’s where the rubber is going to meet the road.”