Internal bill requiring colleges and universities to change accreditation raises questions

Republicans say they’re just trying to give colleges and universities more options when it comes to finding an accrediting agency; but others see something much more insidious: an effort to break the influence of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which has repeatedly snubbed the efforts of state politicians to influence the outcomes of major decisions.

Rep. Amber Mariano chairs the House Post-Secondary Education Committee. She says the intent of the committee’s bill is to give schools more choice when it comes to accreditation.

“We want to make sure that we give our institutions every option on the table to find the most suitable accreditor for their institution,” she said, explaining why she filed the measure.

Two years ago, the federal government removed the requirement for colleges and universities to be accredited by their local provider. The result: Schools can now choose from suppliers across the country. The committee’s bill would require schools to change accreditation every few years. But it’s not as simple as a school just “pack and go.” The process of obtaining accreditation is long and complex. And it’s not just the university itself – all the different programs, colleges and schools should also do the exchange. Also, as North Florida Democratic Rep. Ramon Alexander points out, not all credentialing agencies give the same weight to the same issues.

“One of the things that comes to mind is that as entities start coming in and offering accreditation services…I really feel that, of the two sides, there may be system play. Having continuity through SACS, having apples to apples, maintains that continuity,” he said.

Some accrediting agencies, like the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, are known to be stubborn on issues such as financial stability and academic freedom. Others, like Chicago’s Higher Learning Commission, are known to be more lenient on other types of standards. Yet, if a school runs into an accrediting agency, it can’t just start over somewhere else. Any deficiencies an accreditor finds in a college or university will follow them to another accreditor.

Counterbalancing Alexander is representative Alex Andrade, who disagreed with the idea that a school should stick with its current accreditor for the sake of continuity. Andrade thinks that amounts to complacency, and he says letting schools explore other options can improve their competitiveness.

“The ability to go all the way, to be forced to assess what your students are learning by different but equally acceptable standards, gives universities the opportunity to improve and challenge themselves. ”

Accreditation is the engine of higher education. Having a stamp of approval from one of the nation’s accrediting bodies allows schools and their students to tap into federal financial aid.

“I’m agnostic about accrediting bodies. I just want to make sure accrediting bodies are up to the task of doing this vital work because student aid is at stake,” said North Florida Rep. Allison Tant.

Loss of accreditation can be the death of a school – take Morris Brown in Atlanta, for example, which lost the majority of its students, faculty and staff, and at one point it didn’t. There were more than two dozen students enrolled in the thousands.

Over the years, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools has criticized Florida politicians for trying to influence key decisions in schools. SACS called out former Gov. Rick Scott as he publicly weighed in on the fate of a former Florida A&M University president following the hazing death of an FAMU drum major. He slapped the University of Florida as that school faced the continuing fallout of its attempt to block professors from testifying as expert witnesses in a suffrage lawsuit. Amid Florida State University’s search for a new president – SACS has warned the school against bowing to political deference – as the university considers the candidacy of the education commissioner of the State, Richard Corcoran.

SACS recently refused to merge St. Leo’s University with a Californian school due to St. Leo’s finances. St. Leo is in Pasco County, which Mariano represents in the legislature.

She said the goal of the bill is to ensure that student performance is at the forefront of every school’s agenda:

“Student outcomes are not at the center of all accrediting organizations and as we have a performance funding model based on student outcomes we need to do this at all levels and each institution has the capacity to make sure he is focused on student outcomes in every way,” she said.

The proposal would also give schools the ability to sue their accreditors. It doesn’t just focus on academic accreditation — the measure also requires schools to make textbooks and other materials available 45 days before the start of a semester and keep those materials searchable and public for five years. It also asks colleges and universities to continue aligning their course numbering systems so students can ensure they are not duplicating classes.

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