Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Loosens Accreditor and State Oversight - Higher Education
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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Loosens Accreditor and State Oversight

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced the finalized rule for accreditation and state authorization on Thursday. The new regulations will go into effect on July 1, 2020.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

“We ended the stranglehold that a system designed when people traveled by horse and buggy continued to have on institutions,” DeVos said. “Accreditation has played a role in the bloat that has taken place in higher education administration, and it is time to right size bureaucracy and allow institutions to redirect their resources to students and teaching.”

The 509-page document loosens Department of Education oversight of accreditors and accreditors’ oversight of institutions. It also makes it so that states that join a reciprocity agreement can’t enforce individual state laws governing online higher education programs.

Clare McCann, deputy director for federal policy at New America’s Higher Education Initiative, said the two policy areas are “very interconnected.”

“Federal oversight depends on shared responsibility across accreditors, states and the federal government,” she said.

The state authorization piece is new, and it’s counter to the consensus reached in the negotiated rulemaking process, where stakeholders aired their views. Otherwise, the regulations released Thursday differ only slightly from the draft the Department of Education shared earlier this year.

The final rule gives schools sanctioned by accreditors double the amount of time – a maximum of four years – to fix themselves up before losing accreditation. During that time, students can continue to enroll in these institutions and these schools can continue to receive federal dollars. Institutions can also “shape shift,” Mccann said, making more fundamental changes to their programs and curriculums without notifying their accreditors.

Additionally, it creates a new “substantial compliance” category for accreditors, which means accrediting agencies that don’t entirely meet Department of Education standards are not considered out of compliance. Accrediting agencies in this category will be monitored by the Department of Education, instead of the traditional National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity. Ostensibly, accreditors can submit documentation about their standards without having to prove they’re following those standards or those standards are effective.

“These regulations essentially walk that back to be nothing more than a paperwork exercise,” McCann said.

According to Mccann, the negotiated rulemaking process that led to the regulations was “highly unorthodox,” including only one student and 13 industry and department representatives. Also, a representative of state attorneys general was not allowed to join the committee.

“Looking at the end result, you can really tell how little expertise was on the committee on these issues and how quiet students were,” she said.

DeVos argues the looser finalized regulations give schools more room for innovation instead of “one-size-fits-all solutions.” New accrediting agencies can more easily emerge, and schools have more flexibility in altering their programs, opening new branches and changing accreditors.

But Antoinette Flores, associate director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress said the new regulations make it harder for accreditors to crack down on low-quality schools and the Department of Education to make sure accreditors are doing their job.

Accrediting agencies aren’t known for their speedy take-downs of problematic institutions, Flores said. The process can already take years, and few schools actually lose their accreditation.

“Overall, it’s weakening a system that’s already pretty weak,” she added. “And I think it raises the question of whether we can effectively rely on the system at all.”

According to Flores, the new regulations benefit predatory for-profit colleges by drawing out the process by which accreditors can penalize bad actors and curtailing their already limited tools. She predicts a widening pool of low-quality institutions, and as a result, “a lot more risk” for students.

“This just makes the accreditation system a joke,” she said. “It’s a walking punchline.”

Sara Weissman can be reached at sweissman@diverseeducation.com.

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