Linda Suskie

 A Common Sense Appr​oach to Assessment in Higher Education


Are the regional accreditors' boundaries evaporating?

Posted on February 18, 2020 at 2:30 PM

In November 2019 the US Department of Education (USED) issued “final” regulations for “the secretary’s recognition of accreditation agencies” among other matters. (I put “final” in quotes because things in Washington tend to change every few years.) You can find a link to the relevant pages of the Federal Register here . The new regulations go into effect on July 1, 2020.


Under the new regulations, regional accreditors are no longer required to get Federal approval to change the geographic region in which they accredit (page 58893). A regional accreditor based on the East Coast could, for example, start accepting applications for accreditation from institutions whose main campuses are in Oklahoma.


Will this dramatically change the face of regional accreditation? Let me begin with the caveat that I have not spoken about these regulations with anyone at any of the regional accreditors or anyone involved in the negotiated rules-making process. I’m just interpreting the language in the Federal Register.


The announcement in the Federal Register explains that “the Department seeks to provide increased transparency and introduce greater competition and innovation that could allow an institution…to select an accrediting agency that best aligns with the institution’s mission, program offerings, and student population” (page 58893). The announcement goes further: “The Department expects that the landscape of institutional accrediting agencies may change over time from one where some agencies only accredit institutions headquartered in particular regions to one where institutional accrediting agencies accredit institutions throughout many areas of the United States based on factors such as institutional mission rather than geography” (page 58894). And the announcement speculates, “A shift from strictly geographic orientation may occur over time, probably measured in years, as…greater competition occurs, spurring an evolving dynamic marketplace. Accrediting agencies may align in different combinations that coalesce around specific institutional dimensions or specialties, such as institution size, specialized degrees, or employment opportunities” (page 58897).


So is there going to be a sudden, huge rush among institutions to move from one regional to another? No way. Here’s one of the roadblocks: “[USED will not] require an agency to accept a new institution…for which it did not have capacity or interest to accredit” (page 58894). The regional accreditors are funded by dues paid by member institutions. They run lean operations, both in terms of staffing and dollars. They don’t have the capacity to accept and process applications from significant numbers of institutions without major increases in staffing and funding. While the announcement in the Federal Register speculates, “Accrediting agencies may develop a new focus area or geographic scope over time as they increase resources to expand their operations” (page 58901), I just don’t see a significant increase in resources happening anytime soon, if ever.


Here’s the second roadblock: “[USED] will not require any institution…to change to a different accrediting agency as a result of these regulatory changes” (page 58894). Let’s imagine a wildly hypothetical scenario: one of the regionals decides it wants to accredit only doctoral institutions. It can’t, because it now accredits community colleges, and USED will not require those community colleges to move to another accreditor. Yes, this accreditor could conceivably put in place standards such as for faculty credentials that are amenable to research universities and difficult for community colleges to comply with. But it couldn’t do that until community colleges have another accreditation home, which brings us back to the first roadblock.


I actually like the idea of the regional accreditors going national. I think competition can be healthy, and I like the idea of the regionals differentiating themselves in ways that better serve the incredible diversity of higher education institutions in the United States. I can envision one accreditor developing standards and processes that are particularly suitable for distance learning institutions, another doing the same for traditional institutions, another doing the same for complex institutions… maybe one doing the same for institutions that want an approach to accreditation that relies on documentation without the effort of extensive institutional self-study or analysis. But I don’t think these new regulations are going to move us appreciably down that road.


Categories: Accreditation