College Accreditation Is Changing. Here’s What Students Need To Know.

Politicians and student advocates agree that the college accreditation system needs fixing, and calls for change are getting louder as the 2024 general election approaches.
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Matthew Arrojas is a news reporter at BestColleges covering higher education issues and policy. He previously worked as the hospitality and tourism news reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. He also covered higher education policy issues as...
Updated on April 12, 2024
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  • The current state of college accreditation has been heavily criticized and deemed in need of major reform.
  • There are significant differences in the concerns and proposed solutions for accreditation between political parties.
  • President Joe Biden's administration is making regulatory changes for accreditation, including minimum student achievement standards.
  • The outcome of the 2024 presidential election may determine the future of college accreditation.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have been unhappy with the state of college accreditation for some time now, and calls for change are only getting louder as the 2024 general election approaches.

But while politicians and student advocates seem to agree that accreditation needs fixing, finding consensus on which parts of the system require the most work remains elusive.

"We all agree that the accreditation system is not working as intended," Stephanie Hall, senior director of higher education policy at the Center for American Progress, told BestColleges. "What we need to address now is where we diverge."

The two sides are currently far apart. But Emily Rounds, education policy advisor at the left-leaning think tank Third Way, believes compromise is possible.

"Protecting students and prioritizing student achievement could … receive bipartisan support," she told BestColleges.

Why Accreditation Matters:

Attending an accredited college or university gives your degree value after graduation. You can earn a degree from an unaccredited school, but employers likely won't assign as much value to your diploma.

Accreditors are also tasked with ensuring that you're receiving a quality education.

What's Wrong With Accreditation?

Depending on who you ask, you'll get a different answer to the question: What's wrong with accreditation?

Liberal Concerns

Many politicians and advocates on the left see accreditation's greatest shortcoming as the inability to weed out "bad actors" in higher education. They would say that many institutions are saddling students with high debt loads and awarding degrees with little value, and accreditors aren't doing enough to prevent these poor outcomes.

Rounds notes in "When Will the Watchdogs Bite?" that 37% of accredited institutions graduate less than half of their students. Colleges and universities that graduated less than a quarter of their students received $4 billion in federal funding during the 2021-22 academic year.

Many also pointed to failures of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) as reasons to doubt the abilities of some accreditors. ACICS accredited numerous for-profit institutions that later went defunct or were the subject of controversy, including Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute.

The Department of Education (ED) terminated federal recognition of ACICS in August 2022.

Conservative Concerns

Those on the right, meanwhile, might call accreditation a "cartel" that prioritizes a push of ideology in college classrooms, even if that's not in the best interest of institutions and students.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said as much in its Project 2025 higher education policy recommendations:

"Rather than continuing to buttress a higher education establishment captured by woke 'diversicrats' and a de facto monopoly enforced by the federal accreditation cartel, federal postsecondary education policy should prepare students for jobs in the dynamic economy, nurture institutional diversity, and expose schools to greater market forces."

In a 2023 campaign video, presidential candidate Donald Trump lambasted what he called "radical left accreditors" that have filled college campuses with "Marxist maniacs and lunatics."

Republican attacks on college accreditors can be traced back to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' fight with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) in 2021. That battle started when SACS launched an investigation into the University of Florida after the institution barred three professors from testifying in court against the state.

Different Solutions to Different Perceived Problems

Given the wide gulf in perceived issues with college accreditation, it should come as no surprise that there is an equally wide gulf between proposed solutions.

Biden Takes Aim at Student Outcomes

President Joe Biden's administration is going through the negotiated rulemaking process to make regulatory changes to accreditation.

As part of that process, ED met with higher education stakeholders during the first quarter of 2024 to discuss and draft new regulations. ED put forth two primary accreditation proposals:

  • Requiring accreditors to create minimum student achievement standards for institutions they oversee
  • Prohibiting certain stakeholders from serving on accrediting agency boards

Creating student achievement standards is a big step forward, Eddy Conroy, senior advisor with the education policy program at New America, told BestColleges. However, ED is hamstrung in what it can force accreditors to do. The Higher Education Act prohibits the department from defining those benchmarks, so accreditors can ultimately set standards as high — or as low — as they want.

The department's regulations state that accreditors must create a "justifiable" standard.

The hope, Conroy said, is that accreditors would create standards that actually improve outcomes. Even if accreditors don't set high bars, light requirements can still weed out poor-performing institutions.

"It's one thing if you're struggling with low graduation rates, but you're working to get better," he said. "But if you have low graduation rates year after year after year, then there's a problem there."

Rounds added that there is one feature noticeably missing from Biden's proposal: Enforcement.

She said ED's original plan included language that accreditors must enforce whatever standards they set. As negotiations continued and accreditors pushed back, ED ultimately pulled this language from the regulations.

"I think it's disappointing because without holding intuitions accountable, the minimum expectations don't do much," Rounds said. "Without it, students are not being protected."

Negotiators failed to reach a consensus on this issue, which means ED can still modify its proposal before it puts forth a final draft for public comment, likely later this year.

Republican Governors Force Their Own Change

DeSantis was among the first politicians to put accreditors under the microscope.

His crusade against the industry culminated in a bill that would force colleges and universities in Florida to change accreditors every five years. The Florida Board of Governors would also determine which accrediting agencies would be "best suited" for each institution in the state, according to the bill's text.

"The bill removes the stranglehold that faculty unions and accrediting agencies have had on universities and colleges," his office said in an April 2022 statement.

The new law also would allow an institution to sue its accrediting agency when the school is the subject of a "retaliatory action." Conroy likened this to allowing a restaurant that fails an inspection to sue the health inspector.

DeSantis' victory lap was short-lived.

A few months after signing the bill into law, ED published guidance for institutions seeking to change accreditors. Colleges and universities must show "reasonable cause" for changing accreditors. In deciding whether to approve a change, ED would consider factors like whether changing agencies would strengthen institutional quality or if a new agency would better align with the institution's mission.

"This requirement helps prevent an erosion of accrediting agency standards and provides critical protections for students and taxpayers by ensuring that institutions do not switch accrediting agencies simply to evade accountability, avoid open inquiries, or seek approval from an agency with less rigorous or easier-to-meet standards," ED's letter read.

DeSantis later sued the Biden administration, alleging that this was an attempt to "undercut" Florida's higher education policy.

Florida is not alone in its crusade.

North Carolina adopted a similar law in 2023 that forces institutions to change accreditors every 5-10 years.

Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, said accreditation cycles are too long for him to have noticed any change thus far. However, these laws' chilling effect on accrediting agencies may go unreported, as agencies may be hesitant to bring adverse actions onto schools out of fear of being sued.

"Generally speaking, I think the goal and the effect has likely been to cast a chilling atmosphere," he told BestColleges.

Out With the Old, in With the New

If reelected, former President Donald Trump has more drastic changes in mind for college accreditation.

"When I return to the White House, I will fire the radical left accreditors that have allowed our colleges to become dominated by Marxist maniacs and lunatics," he said in a May 2023 campaign video.

Trump's vision for accreditation is seemingly to wipe the slate clean and start anew. He vowed to replace axed accreditors with new agencies tasked with "removing all Marxist diversity, equity, and inclusion bureaucrats."

Enacting such change won't be easy.

Conroy explained that the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) is the agency that oversees accreditors. While ED has ultimate control over accreditors, it's NACIQI that makes recommendations to the department.

NACIQI's board comprises appointees from the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and the president's office on a rolling basis. This makes sweeping changes difficult to pull off overnight.

"Without a robust system of accreditation, you risk every college in the country becoming a diploma mill and devaluing the quality of the system overall."
— Jeremy Young, Senior Manager at PEN America
Quotation mark

Additionally, federal law prohibits ED from setting specific achievement standards accrediting agencies must enforce, he said.

That may be why Project 2025 calls on the next president to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. Project 2025's proposal includes an idea to "revamp" the system for recognizing accrediting agencies and to make accreditation voluntary.

Young of PEN America said such an initiative could drastically affect the U.S. higher education system.

"Without a robust system of accreditation," he said, "you risk every college in the country becoming a diploma mill and devaluing the quality of the system overall."

What's Next for Accreditation?

The future of college accreditation may largely depend on the 2024 presidential election.

Young explained that while some governors have tried to change the system, they are limited in what they can do. Any substantial changes to accreditation will happen at the federal level.

He added that he wouldn't be surprised to see a debate topic on accreditation during this election cycle.

First things first, the Biden administration will finalize its accreditation regulations. That includes putting forth final language for public comment, analyzing all comments, and making necessary changes.

Conroy said ED will likely aim to wrap up the process by the end of this year, but that's not a given.

Either way, Biden's regulations will likely have to contend with the Congressional Review Act (CRA). This law allows Congress to block agency regulations, but any CRA review also requires the president's approval. That means if Biden is reelected, any CRA review would need a veto-proof majority to strike Biden's proposal.

If Trump is reelected, however, the path becomes easier should Republicans aim to block the proposal.

DeSantis' lawsuit against the federal government is another development to monitor. The case's next hearing is set for May 6.