When Diane Auer Jones announced at a Middle States conference in 2019 that the federal Department of Education had broken the geographic monopolies of regional accreditors, I predicted that “all manner of shenanigans [would] ensue.”
And here we are.
In a fit of pique at being called out for various ethical violations by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the erstwhile regional accreditor that included Florida, the state of Florida decreed that its public colleges and universities would have to change accreditors at the end of each accreditation cycle.
The idea, apparently, was to assert dominance. Showing SACSCOC that saying no would be punished would satisfy a need for revenge and serve notice to other accreditors that they shouldn’t say anything that Florida doesn’t want to hear. It was an exercise in bullying.
Now that reality is setting in, though, it has become clear not only that Florida was trying to bully its accreditor, but that it didn’t even bully correctly.
The various accreditors survive on dues paid by their members. In theory, that could lead accreditors to be gun-shy, since they wouldn’t want to lose membership. But regional monopoly status allowed them to get tough when they needed to. If your assigned regional accreditor was your only option for transferability of credits and access to financial aid, then you sucked it up and did what you had to do to satisfy the accreditor. It was the only game in town. In other words, the “wrong” of monopoly status largely canceled out the “wrong” of member support. The accreditors couldn’t get too power-hungry because they were staffed by members, and the members couldn’t get too cavalier about accreditation or they’d lose their economic lifeline. To steal a line from James Madison, ambition was made to counteract ambition. It sort of worked.
(I say “sort of” because it was never perfect. The Harvards of the world probably got a bit more benefit of the doubt on, say, outcomes assessment than community colleges did. But the basic argument still stands.)
The previous administration decided to eliminate one of the constraints. Now states, or even individual colleges, could go accreditor shopping if they didn’t like what they heard from their current one. Suddenly the threat to take their ball and go home had teeth.
Florida jumped at the chance. But it jumped faster than it thought.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that you’re a politician who doesn’t want to spend money on unarmed public services and who suspects that some of the shenanigans happening in your state might cost money if you had to fix them. You go accreditor shopping, using whatever code words you can (“respect our local traditions”) to draw lines around what they’re allowed to say. You get promises with varying degrees of believability, and you pick the one you like best.
What happens next?
If you’ve already mandated that whoever wins this round must, by definition, lose the next round, then you’ve lost your leverage with which to bully this one. If the accreditor knows that this cycle is one-and-done, why would it bother censoring itself? If you have nothing to lose anyway, why not tell the unvarnished truth? They can’t threaten to drop you; they’ve already committed to dropping you. (“What are they gonna do—fire me?”) There’s no remaining threat. You can simply say what you need to say to get the account, then promptly revert to what you would have done anyway. The intended deterrence isn’t there.
If Florida really wanted to cow its accreditors, it would mandate this round’s change but then leave the option of renewal open for future cycles. Dangle the prospect of renewal as a reward for desired behavior. Without the prospect of renewal, there’s no leverage with which to intimidate.
If you’re going to be unethical, you should at least be crafty. This is just embarrassing.
In the meantime, I hope that the current administration will take steps to prevent accreditor shopping. Once a race to the bottom starts, it’s hard to stop.