The legislature, specifically the NC Senate, appears to be trying to make college and community college accreditation a political issue, which it never should be. Accreditation is a highly focused, disciplined process for all schools that receive certain federal contracts as well as those whose students receive certain scholarships, particularly Pell grants – federal needs-based scholarships that fund full-time and part-time college and vocational school students. The proposed Senate bill ( use this link if you get an error as they sometimes block referrals from our website https://www.ncleg.gov/BillLookUp/2023/S680) may sound innocuous, but it isn’t. Its key tenets are:
- It requires UNC system schools and community colleges to change accreditors every accreditation cycle (about every 10 years).
- It requires that the new accreditor to be chosen from “a preferred list” that is compiled by the Board of Governors.
- It allows one party to sue a person who raises an accreditation issue that leads to a college being found to be “out of compliance” for accreditation if that person is determined to have made a false statement (a reasonable sounding process that in past instances has chilled whistleblowers who fear that their truth will be labeled lies).
It is always risky to change accreditors, but when politicians are trying to drive an accreditor change and dictate the list from which a new creditor can be chosen, it becomes dangerous.
In addition to the fundamental actions imposed by the bill, cited above, let’s delineate a few more concerns raised with inadequate accreditation:
- Potential loss of $1.5 billion in federal financial aid funds: this is the amount Carolina alone receives in federal financial aid funds; the total system received much more. This does not include research funding of other institutional grants which may rely on a recipient being accredited.
- The process becomes politicized when politicians are the driving force behind changing accreditors. Lack of political influence is a core piece of all significant accrediting agencies so this alone would pose a problem to most reputable and highly quality accreditors.
- Threats to Academic STANDARDS: Accreditation helps ensure a certain academic quality across different colleges and universities; and therefore, protects students, faculty and the value of degrees for those who have already graduated. If politicians force colleges to change accreditors without a valid reason or sufficient evidence, it threatens academic quality and undermines the integrity of the institution.
- Impact on Reputation: Changing accreditors can create a perception that an institution has failed to meet the standards of its previous accreditor, which can have a negative impact on its reputation. This will not only effect enrolled students, but past graduates.
- Loss of Institutional Knowledge: Accreditation requires a deep understanding of a college or university’s operations, policies, and procedures. When an institution changes accreditors, it loses that institutional knowledge and expertise that it has built up over many years. New agencies would take much longer and place a much more significant burden on administrators when they have to acquaint new accreditors with their policies and practices. This adds administrative costs to the schools.
- Students who transfer to another institution or who seek additional educational degrees risk not being accepted if their degree comes from a school that has a lower standard of accreditation.
According to the Urban Institute, “The accreditation system in American higher education began in the late 1800s and early 1900s as a way for colleges and universities with high academic standards to distinguish themselves from institutions that claimed to be colleges but had curricula similar to many high schools (Harcleroad 1980).” Accreditation is intended to be an objective process that evaluates academic quality based on agreed-upon standards. One concern of all accreditors is that the institutions not have undue influence by political decision-makers or influencers as politicization undermines objectivity and credibility in the scholarly process and erodes academic freedom.
What happens when an accrediting agency has a concern regarding the actions or activities of a member institution? The accrediting agency contacts the institution and asks for clarification, initially in the form of a relatively standard letter. This is what happened when UNC’s accrediting agency, SACSCOC, sent a letter to Chancellor Guskiewicz earlier this year asking for more information about the recent action by Carolina’s trustees regarding the proposed School of Civic Life and Leadership. Chancellor Guskiewicz responded, providing detail about how the university intended to assess and, if approved by the faculty, create the new program. That satisfied, and therefore concluded, the SACSCOC query here.
When the institution responds the agency decides whether the answer was sufficient to satisfy the question. If it is sufficient, there is no further action — as was the recent case with Carolina. If it is not sufficient, there will be further conversations between the accrediting agency and the school. Sometimes additional information is needed and at times penalties are imposed. It is everyone’s goal – the accreditor and the school – for the accreditation to stand.
Chancellor Guskiewicz’s response to the recent SACSCOC letter satisfied the agency that proper processes were being followed at this time. However, that did not satisfy our legislature. Almost as soon as Senator Berger learned that SACSCOC intended “to send a letter” asking for clarification about the proposed new program – standard procedure when an accreditor has a question – he introduced bill 680, (Revise Higher Ed Accreditation Processes). This was his reaction to a presentation by the head of SACSCOC to the Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities in North Carolina.
Recall Chief Justice Felix Frankfurter’s four essential freedoms of a college or university in deciding Sweezy vs New Hampshire: Universities have the right (1) to determine who may teach; (2) what can be taught; (3) how it is taught; and (4) who will be admitted. Pushing changes in accreditation harms these essential institutional freedoms. Further, Carolina is currently accredited by the highest level and quality of external accreditation. Changing accreditors from an accreditor like SACSCOC would likely result in a lower quality accreditation of our programs, which would damage past, present, and future generations.
Because of the serious consequences noted above, we’ve decided to host a webinar with a panel to discuss the potential ramifications of Senate Bill 680. We’ll send out invitations to the webinar once the logistics are complete. In the meantime, we want to point out that this draft bill sponsored by Senator Berger also raises alarms and concerns because it seems eerily similar to the extremist action that Ron DeSantis took in Florida against their college accreditor, but with an even more severe twist given its allowance of litigation.
It is critical that we not stand still here. Contact representatives and alert your neighbors to the threats this bill proposes. The vast majority of colleges and universities in the southeast are accredited by SACSCOC. If the North Carolina university system and community colleges seek a lessor accreditor we all stand to lose.
We’ve posted images of the entire draft bill on our website. Follow this link to read the draft bill.