Two new policy briefs from the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal take aim at college and university accreditation.

On Feb. 25, the Martin Center released its first brief, “It’s Time for More States to Sack SACS,” by Adam Kissel. Kissel was deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs at the US Department of Education under President Donald Trump and is now a senior fellow at the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.

The brief explains how the 11 Southern states whose colleges and universities are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) can reform their laws to allow public and private institutions to choose new accreditors. SACS has a track record of interfering with the governance processes of higher-education institutions, including in North Carolina. Last year, SACS attempted to intervene in the creation of the new School of Civic Life and Leadership at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“Until recently, institutional accreditation was controlled by a cartel of ‘regional’ accreditors that had divided the country into six regions. Accreditors would not trespass into each other’s turf,” Kissel explained. “As a result, they each had monopoly power.”

But a change made by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in 2019 made it easy for any regional accreditor to operate anywhere in the country, with a goal of creating competition among accrediting bodies. Now, states must make corresponding changes so that colleges and universities can choose the accreditor that meets their needs.

A second brief, “How Universities Should Choose Their Next Accreditor,” offers advice to college and university leaders on how to choose the right accreditor. Criteria include examining the diversity, equity, and inclusion practices of an accreditor, analyzing the costs and benefits they provide, and inquiring into the accreditor’s flexibility with educational innovation. 

The brief was written by Adam Kissel and Martin Center president Jenna Robinson. It was co-published by the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and the Cardinal Institute.

“With this report, institutional leaders now have criteria to help them choose the best one for their institution’s unique circumstances,” said Kissel.

This is important because accreditation is one of the three tickets that every college in America must punch if it wants access to federal student aid (FSA) programs for its students. The current regulatory regime for postsecondary institutions forces each college wanting to participate in FSA programs to get authorization from the state in which it operates, meet the standards set by the US Department of Education, and get a green light from a national accreditor.

“Trustees should understand their options when looking for a new accreditor. This report will help them know what to look for,” said Jenna A. Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

This advice is timely. The legislatures of two Southern states, Florida and North Carolina, recently made changes requiring public colleges and universities to change accreditors within the next 10 years. North Carolina’s law law gives choice to private colleges, too. Like public colleges, they may choose from among any formerly regional accreditor. They also may choose the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, which accredits Christian institutions. However, private colleges do not have to change accreditors.

“Making a change of accreditor at regular intervals is good policy,” the brief explains. “For all colleges, it is valuable to get a fresh set of eyes on their enterprises. This practice is like requiring companies to change financial auditors every so often, so that the institution does not get so chummy with its reviewer that the reviewer starts to miss or, worse, intentionally overlook problems.”

As colleges and universities leave their regional accreditors, a national market for accreditation will emerge, sparking competition and innovation.