New Law Endangers The Quality Of Florida Higher Education

ByElizabeth J. Bohn

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Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis and Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature have had their sights trained on education-related legislation for the past month. They have passed a flurry of controversial laws, including the so-called “don’t say gay” bill. A law that has drawn less attention is one that makes technical changes to how Florida’s public colleges and universities work with accrediting agencies, non-profit organizations that verify the quality of colleges and decide whether students can pay for their schooling using federal financial aid. The changes could undermine the ability of accreditors to protect students from poorly performing colleges, leading to poorer outcomes for students, fewer college graduates, and more student loan defaults.

The law requires colleges and universities to seek a new accrediting agency every five to ten years. The law also allows those institutions to sue accreditors if they are “negatively impacted by retaliatory action taken against postsecondary education institution by an accrediting agency or association.” As part of their job, Accreditors are required to tell institutions if the education they are providing is not good enough. Taking actions that could negatively impact an institution ensures that students do not attend low-quality programs. This is like your favorite take-out place being allowed to sue the health inspector for citing health code violations in the restaurant kitchen.

What do Accreditors do and why does it matter?

One of the primary roles of accreditors is to ensure institutions provide an acceptable quality of education. For example, by ensuring that the institution employs properly trained and qualified faculty, ensuring that students have sufficient academic support and that students are actually graduating from the school. Encouraging institutions to constantly hop from one accreditor to another, potentially allowing them to hide poor quality education, is terrible for students.

Part of the impetus for this law seems to have been questions raised by The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), the agency that currently accredits most Florida colleges and universities. SACSOC had inquired about potential undue political influence being exercised over Florida State University and the University of Florida by state education officials. In addition to educational quality, accreditors ensure that colleges and universities can operate free of political interference.

Accreditation is supposed to protect students by ensuring that the programs they enroll in provide quality education. It also ensures that students can receive federal financial aid, something not available to students attending an unaccredited institution. Without federal financial aid, which includes Pell Grants and federal student loans, many/most colleges in the country would be forced to close their doors. By forcing institutions to seek a new accreditor every five years, this new law encourages poorly performing institutions to seek out accreditors that will allow lower standards while threatening those with higher standards with retaliation if they do their jobs properly.

The provision allowing Florida schools to sue their accreditor for any action taken that negatively impacts the school is likely to make new potential accreditors wary of taking on Florida institutions. The law does a poor job of specifying what is considered “retaliatory action,” making it unclear what accreditor actions would run afoul of it.

Since accreditors help ensure school quality, accreditors would be derelict in their duty if they did not sometimes take actions that might negatively impact an institution. For example, a for-profit college in Florida was once found guilty of using strippers to induce students to enroll in programs that provided poor education, all to ensure that college could get the students Pell Grant and student loan dollars. Public colleges, thankfully, have rarely acted as poorly as this. But, making it harder for accreditors to hold institutions accountable makes it more challenging to keep educational standards up and political influence out of Florida higher education. If warning schools and students about areas of concern could lead to legal action, it will hinder accreditors from doing their job effectively.

How will this impact students?

Students rely on their school being accredited. Without that, they might not be able to access financial aid, transfer credits to other institutions or have their undergraduate work be accepted as adequate for graduate school applications. Some professional licensing boards will not allow graduates from unaccredited programs to sit for licensure; the ramifications are almost endless. By giving schools the ability to sue their accreditors, it is possible that some accreditation agencies could refuse to work with Florida schools, potentially leaving students who enrolled stuck with no transferrable credits and no access to financial support. Or it means that accreditors won’t do what they are supposed to do to ensure acceptable levels of quality, which also puts students at risk.

Gaining accreditation is a massive undertaking for any school. That is why most schools do not change accreditors unless they absolutely must. The transition process can also take several years, during which time the school would need to work with two different accreditors at the same time, potentially with two different sets of standards.

The bill allows institutions to remain with their current accreditor if they cannot secure a new one before their current accreditation period expires. So, after vast amounts of effort and money are expended, Florida colleges might end up back where they started.

Florida colleges deserve the certainty of working with accreditors to ensure the education they offer is high quality. Students deserve to know that someone is ensuring the college they attend will provide them with a high-quality education. This law gets in the way of both those goals.

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