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House bill to require colleges and universities to switch accreditors raises questions

 Three students look at their cell phones in a state university lecture hall
Three students look at their cell phones in a state university lecture hall
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WFSU Public Media
Three students look at their cell phones in a state university lecture hall

Republicans say they’re just trying to give colleges and universities more options when it comes to finding an accrediting agency; but others see something far more insidious: an effort to break the influence of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which has repeatedly snubbed efforts by state politicians to influence the outcomes of major decisions.

Rep. Amber Mariano chairs the House’s Post-Secondary Education Committee. She says the intent of the Committee bill is to give schools more choices in accreditation.

"We want to make sure we’re giving our institutions all the options on the table to find the accreditor Best suited for their institution," she said in explaining why she filed the measure.

Two years ago, the federal government removed a requirement that colleges and universities be accredited by the provider in their region. The result: schools can now choose from providers all over the country. The committee bill would require schools to switch accreditors every few years. But it’s not as simple as a school simply “packing up and leaving.” The process of gaining accreditation is long and complex. And it's not just the university itself— all various programs, colleges and schools would have to make the swap as well. Furthermore, as North Florida Democratic Rep. Ramon Alexander points out, not all accrediting agencies give the same weight to the same issues.

“One of the things coming to mind is, as entities begin to come in and offer accrediting services…I really feel like, on both sides, there can be gaming of the system. Having continuity through SACS, having apples to apples, keeps that continuity," he said.

Some accreditation agencies, like the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, are known for being sticklers on issues like financial stability and academic freedom. Others, like the Higher Learning Commission in Chicago, are known for being more lenient on other kinds of standards. Yet if a school runs afoul of one accrediting agency they don’t just get to start over elsewhere. Any deficiencies an accreditor finds at a college or university will follow them to another accreditor.

Counterbalancing Alexander is Rep. Alex Andrade, who disagreed on the idea that a school should stick with its present accreditor for the sake of continuity. Andrade believes that amounts to complacency, and he says letting schools explore other options can improve their competitiveness.

 “The ability to go to complete, to be forced to assess what your students are learning based on different but just as acceptable standards, gives the universities an opportunity to improve and challenge themselves.”   

Accreditation is the lifeblood of higher education. Having a seal of approval from one of the nation’s accrediting agencies allows schools and their students to tap into federal financial aid.

“I am agnostic about the accrediting bodies. I just want to make sure the accrediting bodies are up to the task of doing this vital work because student aid is at stake," said North Florida Rep. Allison Tant.

The loss of accreditation can be the death of a school—take Morris Brown in Atlanta, for example, which lost the majority of its students, faculty and staff, and at one point, was down to less than two-dozen students from enrollment in the thousands.

Over the years, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools has slammed Florida politicians for attempts at influencing key decisions at the schools. SACS called out former Gov. Rick Scott as he publicly weighed in on the fate of a former Florida A&M University president following the hazing death of a FAMU drum major. It slapped the University of Florida as that school dealt with ongoing fallout over its attempt to deny professors from testifying as expert witnesses in a voting rights lawsuit. Amid Florida State University’s search for a new president—SACS cautioned the school about giving in to political deference—as the university considered the application of state education commissioner Richard Corcoran.

SACS recently denied St. Leo University’s merger with a California school because of St. Leo’s finances. St. Leo is in Pasco County, which Mariano represents in the legislature.

She said the goal of the bill is to ensure student performance is at the forefront of each schools' agenda:

“Student outcome is not the focus of all accrediting organizations and as we have a performance funding model based on student outcomes we need to be doing that across the board and that every institution has the ability to make sure they’re focused in every way on student outcomes," she said.

The proposal would also give schools the ability to sue their accreditors. It doesn’t just focus on university accreditation—the measure also requires schools to make school textbooks and other materials available 45 days before the start of a semester and to keep those materials searchable and public for five years. It also calls for colleges and universities to continue aligning their course numbering systems so students can make sure they’re not duplicating classes.
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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.
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