NAICU Washington Update

Education Department Announces Changes to Accreditation Regulations and Handbook

June 25, 2019

Continuing its push for accreditation reform, the Trump Administration has published proposed regulations on accreditation and revised its handbook on the federal recognition process. Public comments on the notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) are due on July 12, 2019. The changes to the accreditation manual are voluntary, but take effect immediately.

Proposed Accreditation Regulations

The Department of Education recently published proposed regulations governing federal recognition of accrediting agencies, state authorization, and other student assistance general provisions. The NPRM is the result of months of negotiated rulemaking, in which a broad array of higher education stakeholders debated a massive package of Title IV regulatory changes sought by the Department.  Because negotiators reached consensus, the Department is now bound to publish proposed rules that are based on the agreed-upon regulatory language.

The proposed regulations would make numerous amendments to current Title IV rules, including changes that would:
  • Clarify the roles of the program integrity triad;
  • Allow more flexibility for accreditors and institutions to innovate;
  • Reemphasize the importance of institutional mission;
  • Establish a definition of religious mission;
  • Simplify the federal recognition process;
  • Create a new category of “substantial compliance” for accreditors who have minor deficiencies in their recognition applications;
  • Streamline the accreditation review process for certain types of substantive changes;
  • Establish new transparency requirements for accreditors to meet;
  • Permit accreditors to apply alternative accreditation standards to institutions;
  • Allow institutions additional time to become compliant with accreditation standards;
  • Modify institutional disclosure requirements;
  • Strengthen requirements governing the teach-out process; and
  • Revise state authorization requirements for distance education programs.
The NPRM on accreditation is the first of three sets of proposed rules that the Department intends to publish in order to address all of the regulatory amendments that were agreed upon during negotiated rulemaking. Forthcoming NPRMs are expected to contain changes affecting TEACH grants, faith-based institutions, distance education, and the distribution and return of federal financial aid. The Department has indicated that its goal is to finalize all three NPRMs before November 1, in order to allow implementation to begin by July 1, 2020.

Because NAICU participated in the negotiated rulemaking process, and, in keeping with negotiator protocols, NAICU does not intend to submit comments on the NPRM.

Revised Accreditation Handbook

Meanwhile, the Department also announced that it has streamlined its Accreditation Handbook, which provides guidance to accrediting agencies on navigating the federal recognition process.

According to the Department, when an accreditor is up for departmental review, “the new handbook adds a site visit by Department staff to the accreditor to allow for review of accreditor files and documents, and to obtain a more complete understanding of the accreditor’s processes and past actions.” It also “provides clearer, more concise requirements for accrediting agencies so they know what kind of and how much evidence they should submit to meet compliance requirements.”

For the first year, use of the new handbook is voluntary for accreditors. Once the Department publishes the final regulations on accreditation, the Department expects to revise the handbook accordingly.

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