NAICU Washington Update

New Guidance on Changing Accreditors Released

July 22, 2022

The Department of Education released guidance that establishes a new approval process for institutions seeking to switch to a new accreditor or add an additional accrediting agency. The guidance, which consists of three separate documents, is designed to address the Department’s concern that recent developments in accreditation will lead to a “race to the bottom in quality standards among accrediting agencies.”

Specifically, the Department cites two factors as concerns: (1) Trump-era regulations that allow former regional accreditors to accredit institutions outside of their traditional boundaries; and (2) a new Florida law that requires public colleges and universities to switch accreditors before their next accreditation cycle. 

According to the Department, the guidance is “intended to ensure that institutions are held to high standards, and that an institution subject to oversight by its current accrediting agency cannot simply seek to evade accountability by jumping to a different accreditor…. The Department aims to protect against a race to the bottom and ensure that accreditation remains a voluntary process as required by law, and that institutions are not forced to switch against their will.” 

To address these goals, the Department issued three guidance documents that address:
  • The process that institutions must follow when seeking to change or add an accreditation agency;
  • The factors the Department may consider when evaluating such requests; and
  • An accreditor’s obligation to demonstrate that membership is voluntary when seeking recognition by the Department.
Guidance on Institutional Process

The first guidance document sets forth the process that institutions must follow when seeking to change or add an accreditor. In a shift from previous policy, institutions must now seek approval from the Department before changing or adding an accrediting agency. Specifically, institutions must notify the office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) of their intent and submit documentation regarding its current accreditation status and materials demonstrating reasonable cause for changing or adding accreditors. Institutions will not be permitted to apply to a new accreditor until the Department approves of the change. The guidance is effective immediately, and institutions that are already in the middle of changing or adding accreditors must immediately comply with the new process.

Guidance on Factors the Department Will Consider

The second guidance document describes the factors that FSA may consider when evaluating whether institutions have demonstrated reasonable cause for changing or adding an accreditor. These factors include:
  • The institution’s stated reason for changing or adding an accreditor;
  • Whether the institution is seeking to reduce oversight or rigor or evade inquires or sanctions by its current accreditor;
  • Whether the change would strengthen quality;
  • Whether the new or additional accreditor is more closely aligned with the institution’s mission;
  • Whether the new or additional accreditor has been subject to Department action; and
  • Whether the institution’s membership in the new or additional accrediting agency would be voluntary.
Consistent with the regulations, the Department will also examine:
  • The institution’s history of compliance with the requirements of its accrediting agency, the Department, and other oversight agencies;
  • The institution’s financial stability; and
  • Past accrediting agency actions or open inquiries.
Guidance on An Accreditor’s Obligation to Ensure Voluntary Membership

The third and final guidance document focuses on an accreditor’s obligation to demonstrate that membership is voluntary as required by the regulations governing federal recognition of accrediting agencies. The guidance addresses two situations involving voluntary membership: (1) when an institution seeks to change or add an accreditor; and (2) when the Department evaluates accrediting agencies during the recognition process. 

In discussing the first situation, the guidance notes: “because the Department only recognizes accrediting agencies that have a voluntary membership of institutions of higher education, in reviewing for ‘reasonable cause’ for changing or adding accreditors, the Department will also consider whether the materials provided support a finding that the institution’s membership in the new accrediting agency would be voluntary.” 

Second, the guidance notes that the Department will also address the issue of voluntary membership when it conducts review of an accreditor’s recognition. Notably, the guidance emphasizes that “agencies should conduct their own independent evaluation of whether an institutional change of accrediting agencies (or multiple accreditation) is voluntary” and warns accreditors that they could face a finding of noncompliance and loss of recognition if they fail to do so. 

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