America’s unelected accrediting organizations possess broad power over our nation’s higher education institutions and professional licensure—power unchecked by any meaningful public oversight and power increasingly used to stifle any challenge to the education establishment’s monopoly and to advance a radical political agenda. Our colleges and universities cannot be reformed unless the accrediting organizations are as well. American policymakers must act boldly at both the federal and state levels to reform the abuses that have become endemic in accreditation and licensure. The accrediting organizations’ stranglehold over America’s colleges and professions must be removed.
The National Association of Scholars (NAS) has been working for accreditation reform since its foundation in 1987, including publicizing accreditation abuses, calling for depoliticized accreditation standards, and sending open letters to accrediting organizations to protest their misconduct. More recently, we have made recommendations for accreditation policy reform at the federal level and for education licensure reform at the state level. We also have drafted model legislation for the Civics Alliance to reform accreditation at the state level.
Our commitment to accreditation reform is not new—but now a critical mass of the American public and policymakers has come to realize both the importance of higher education reform and the necessity of accreditation reform as part of the broader campaign to redeem our colleges and universities. We believe that now is an appropriate time to state thoroughly and coherently what principles and what priorities should guide accreditation policy reform.
The NAS endorses 10 principles and priorities of accreditation policy reform, to be enacted at both the federal and the state levels.
- NACIQI Nomination Reform. Nominate dedicated accreditation reformers to staff the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI).
- Accreditation Scope Reduction. Reduce the scope of accreditation to assessing fiscal health and institutional transparency.
- Accreditation Freedom. Remove accrediting organizations’ monopolies and allow states to create their own accrediting organizations.
- Accreditation Innovation. Remove the institutional bias against new accrediting organizations and new institutions of higher education.
- Accreditation Nondiscrimination. Prohibit accrediting organizations from imposing discriminatory policies on institutions of higher education.
- Accreditation Depoliticization. Prohibit accrediting organizations from imposing politicized policies on institutions of higher education.
- Accreditation Religious Freedom. Prohibit accrediting organizations from violating the religious mission of institutions of higher education.
- Accreditation Autonomy Resolution. Authorize state policymakers to give instructions to university officials on how to vote in accreditation organizations.
- Accreditor Replacement. Begin the process by which several states can undertake a deliberate process of preparing a replacement accrediting organization.
- Licensure Nondiscrimination. Depoliticize and prevent group-identity discrimination in every aspect of professional licensure.
We also have put our accreditation statement in the form of a Model Accreditation and Licensure Code. We present here our principles and priorities for accreditation reform, and in our Code we translate our principles and priorities into legislative language. Some elements of this statement and the Code echo ideas first articulated by other organizations or by reforming policymakers. Many other organizations, notably the Heritage Foundation and the America First Policy Institute, also have dedicated themselves to drafting plans for accreditation reform at a great level of detail. Elected representatives already have submitted bills for accreditation reform, including Senator Mike Lee, Representative and Chair Virginia Foxx, Representative Francis Rooney, and then-Representative Ron DeSantis. While our Code presents model language to articulate our principles and priorities, we would be delighted with any legislative language that achieves our strategic goals.
We provide here principles for bold reform of America’s accreditation organizations. Therefore we do not address the broad range of suggested reforms that seek to preserve the existing system as a whole and render it more functional. Neither do we suggest particular means by which to create by careful steps an alternate system of accreditation to which colleges and universities can transfer gradually, and leave the old, corrupt complex of accreditors to wither on the vine. We support any and all effective reforms of our accreditation organizations, but we wish to state clearly what comprehensive reform should be, to provide a guiding vision for more incremental policies.
Higher education accrediting bodies can be traced back to the early twentieth century. They were voluntary associations that colleges joined in an effort to improve their reputations and to assure the public that their operations were legitimate. They played a very minor role in American higher education.
Then in 1965, Congress passed the Higher Education Act (HEA), which greatly expanded federal spending in this sector of the economy, especially through the creation of the federally-funded Title IV student loan program. All at once, colleges and universities could receive a major new stream of revenue. Congress saw fit to tie the eligibility of colleges and universities to participate in the Title IV program by stipulating that these had to be accredited institutions. This rule applied to all forms of federal student aid, including both grants and loans.
The formerly voluntary accrediting bodies suddenly had an important Congressionally mandated role. Their decisions on whether to grant, withhold, sustain, or revoke accreditation became financially consequential. As federal student grants and Title IV student loans fed a huge expansion in college enrollments and the rise of thousands of new colleges and universities, accreditation became a do-or-die concern for individual institutions.
This is how accrediting organizations have acquired enormous power. Universities depend on federal student aid: five-sixths of students receive federal student aid and, by the narrowest calculation, federal aid provides 13% of public university budgets. Effectively, very few students will go to an unaccredited college. The exceptions are a handful of very small colleges that either reject all federal aid or are too new to have qualified for accreditation. Collectively these enroll fewer than 5,000 students among the approximately 18 million who currently attend college. Accrediting organizations have the power of financial life and death over almost every American university.
The opportunity for abuse was thus built into accreditation beginning in 1965—and abuses soon began to appear. Assurances about the quality of education programs were hollowed out in order to favor some institutions of very low educational quality. Guarantees of financial probity also frequently proved unreliable. Accreditors, moreover, showed little concern for high student loan default rates, even though some colleges’ and universities’ attendees defaulted at very high rates.
The coupling of federal student loan eligibility and student grants with accreditation has proved to be rife with complications over the last 58 years. These have been widely noticed: the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, among other critics, have published extensive critiques of the current accreditation system. These critiques include:
- self-interested insiders have captured the Education Department regulators and rendered federal supervision ineffective;
- the Education Department supports the existing quasi-monopoly of accrediting organizations;
- the accrediting organizations support the existing quasi-monopoly of higher-education systems;
- the accreditation system creates vast bureaucracies in each college, devoted to fulfilling the bureaucratic requirements imposed by accrediting organizations, and ultimately uninterested in higher education itself; and
- accreditation provides no educational benefit to justify the vast costs it imposes.
Congress from time to time has attempted to correct the system, though to little avail.
The New Radicalization
Recently a new form of abuse has appeared and so far Congress has taken little notice of it. The new abuse is the determination of accreditors to impose political commitments on colleges and universities. These impositions usually take the form of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” requirements, although they sometimes are masked under other terms.
Accrediting organizations have been imposing “diversity” requirements for decades. These requirements pressure institutions of higher education to commit themselves to policies of race and sex discrimination and to create “diversity” bureaucracies dedicated to these policies—and to stifling all expressed opposition to these policies. These requirements at first created a scandal, but they became commonplace. They also have become even more radical. Where “diversity” requirements at least euphemized the radical ideological consequences of these policies, a new generation of so-called “anti-racist” accreditation policies now explicitly impose radical ideology on accreditation requirements. Progressive advocates now use accrediting organizations to force radical politics upon institutions of higher education—with a cut-off of federal student aid the implicit price of disobedience.
The accreditors' misuse of their powers in order to radicalize higher education or to ratify the radicalization that is already there has a counterpart in professional licensure. Together these impose expensive and rigid bureaucracies onto higher education. The creation of these bureaucracies is not just a side effect of the radical ideologies at play but part of their purpose. The bureaucracies provide highly paid employment to large numbers of ideologues who have strong incentives to maintain and advance the creed they represent.
Current accreditation policies are shifting rapidly to limit higher education and professional licensure to a radical elite. America’s policymakers must reform the statutes and the regulations governing accreditation if they are to preserve higher education and professional licensure as depoliticized routes to career success for all Americans.
Accrediting organizations also radicalize professional licensure. Seven regional accrediting organizations share responsibility for general accreditation of undergraduate institutions, and thereby control the flow of federal loans and grants to higher education institutions. Yet dozens of specialized accrediting organizations provide accreditation for specific disciplines—and for specific professional licensures. The radicalization of accreditation also threatens to politicize licensure for careers ranging from social worker to lawyer to doctor. Their control of licensure in dozens of professions matters as much as the seven regional accrediting organizations' chokehold on federal funding. The licensure laws generally are state responsibilities—but state statutes have also delegated their power to unaccountable, radicalized accrediting organizations.
Accrediting organizations don’t just impose a dysfunctional, bureaucratic, costly framework on higher education, coupled with political radicalization. More fundamentally, they remove accountability from the higher education system. Accrediting organizations are insulated from federal control. They also impose requirements on universities, and especially public universities, which state citizens cannot oppose without risking the accreditation status of their public universities. Since accrediting organizations are themselves staffed by higher education administrators and professors, both in their permanent staff and in the review committees for each institution’s accreditation application, the accreditation process is effectively a means for members of the radical education establishment to impose changes on universities while avoiding public accountability at either the federal or the state level.
Higher education reform requires policies to reform accreditation and licensure at both the federal and state levels.
Accreditation Reform: Ten Principles and Priorities
- NACIQI Nomination Reform
The Education Department’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) is responsible for federal oversight of accrediting organizations. Federal policymakers should nominate NACIQI members more carefully, to ensure that NACIQI includes as many dedicated accreditation reformers as possible.
- Accreditation Scope Reduction
Accrediting organizations have the power to coerce institutions of higher education because the scope of accreditation standards includes every aspect of how institutions operate. Above all, they have abused the federal government’s delegation of power to accredit student success, curricula, faculty, student support services, recruiting and admissions standards, and program objectives. Each of these can be, and has been, used to impose politicized policies, and supportive bureaucracies, upon institutions of higher education.
The federal government ought to dissolve entirely the tie between accreditation and federal student aid, so as to eliminate at once the accreditors’ financial chokehold on institutions of higher education. As a first step toward this goal, federal policymakers should amend 34 U.S. Code § 602.16 – Accreditation and preaccreditation standards, Section 1, to reduce the scope of accreditation. Federal policymakers should preserve unchanged the accrediting organizations’ mandate to evaluate fiscal and administrative capacity, student complaints, and Title IV compliance. Accrediting organizations, however, should be confined to assessing the public and transparent reporting of student success, curricula, faculty, student support services, facilities, recruiting and admissions standards, and program objectives, rather than institutions’ success at meeting those objectives. Accrediting organizations, in other words, now will assess fiscal health and institutional transparency. Students and families will be free to use this information to decide for themselves whether an institution provides education of sufficient quality.
We realize that even a restriction of accreditor scope to public and transparent reporting can be abused. We believe that the Education Department would need to provide follow-up guidance, to ensure that accreditors do not abuse their remaining powers. Yet we believe that this Act would substantially reduce accreditors’ power to politicize and bureaucratize institutions of higher education, while increasing their power to provide useful information for individual Americans to make their own decisions about where to be educated.
- Accreditation Freedom
Accrediting organizations, especially regional accrediting organizations, traditionally have possessed a quasi-monopoly over institutions of higher education. They have been able to impose increasingly politicized and bureaucratic requirements on the institutions they accredit precisely because the institutions cannot escape them. Colleges and universities, and the states who charter and fund public university systems, ought to have far greater freedom to switch accrediting organizations, and states should be able to create their own accrediting systems.
Policymakers should enter into statute existing regulatory reforms, and elements of the proposed Higher Education and Reform Act of 2019, which 1) remove regional accrediting organizations’ monopoly and allow institutions to choose their own accrediting organization nationwide; 2) allow institutions to receive multiple accreditations, to ease the process of switching accrediting organizations; and 3) authorize states to provide alternative forms of accreditation, so they can provide their own alternatives to existing accrediting organizations.
This reform will strengthen accountability within higher education, by removing the all-too-convenient excuse that institutions have to do what accreditors tell them to do, and they have no means to escape from the accrediting monopoly.
- Accreditation Innovation
America’s accrediting structure inhibits the creation of new accrediting organizations and the creation of new institutions of higher education. The institutional bias toward the existing accrediting organizations and institutions establishes a quasi-monopoly at all levels in higher education. Radicals in the higher education establishment exploit this quasi-monopoly to impose politicized policies, since Americans who want to have access to federal student aid have little or no chance to choose new accreditors or institutions.
Policymakers should remove the federal government’s bias toward existing accrediting organizations and institutions by striking the words “and the experience” from accrediting recognition, since those words have created a Catch-22 that limits recognition to the existing cartel of accrediting organizations. Policymakers also should make it easier for new entrants into the higher education marketplace, by requiring accrediting organizations to “establish and apply policies to facilitate the timely, fair, and equitable accreditation of new educational institutions,” and to report annually on the effect of these policies. These two reforms jointly would remove the existing statutory bias toward quasi-monopoly in our system of higher education.
- Accreditation Nondiscrimination
Accrediting organizations play a vital role in imposing race and sex preferences and other discriminatory policies on institutions of higher education. Discriminatory accreditation requirements leave institutions of higher education no practical choice about whether to comply, since they will lose eligibility for federal student aid if they fail to do so. Many higher education administrators prefer to discriminate in any case, and the accreditation requirements provide them an excuse that they can present to policymakers, trustees, and citizens. Discriminatory accreditation requirements are wrong in themselves. They also damage the higher education system in general, because they remove higher education administrators’ accountability to their universities’ constituents.
Politicized accreditation requirements ought generally to be removed. Above all, accreditation requirements should be removed which explicitly or implicitly subvert the Civil Rights Act by imposing race and sex preferences. Policymakers should 1) prohibit accrediting organizations from using any means to impose discriminatory policies on institutions of higher education; 2) prohibit accrediting organizations from imposing discriminatory policies on their own personnel or on accreditation peer reviewers; 3) require accrediting organizations to limit accreditation to institutions that guarantee they do not discriminate; 4) authorize both the Education Department and the Justice Department to enforce this Act; and 5) authorize any citizen, business, or nonprofit entity with demonstrable connections to the accrediting organization to sue the accrediting organization in a court of law to enforce this Act.
- Accreditation Depoliticization
Many accrediting organizations now possess extremely politicized accreditation standards. The Council on Social Work Education, for example, requires that “Social workers understand the pervasive impact of White supremacy and privilege and use their knowledge, awareness, and skills to engage in anti-racist practice.” Accreditors committed to such extreme ideology should have their powers over institutions reduced as much as possible, and states and institutions should be granted the maximum amount of freedom to escape such accreditors.
Yet the federal government cannot be satisfied with crafting means to escape such accreditors. The federal government should act forthrightly to de-recognize all accreditors who embrace such discriminatory concepts. Federal policymakers should prohibit the Secretary of Education from recognizing any accrediting organization that imposes politicized requirements such as belief in or practice of discriminatory concepts, a defamatory history of America’s founding, the systemic nature of racism, the so-called multiplicity or fluidity of gender identities, concepts such as allyship, diversity, social justice, sustainability, systemic racism, gender identity, equity, or inclusion, or service-learning.
- Accreditation Religious Freedom
Accrediting organizations now can violate religious liberty protections by means of their power to “require that the institution’s or program’s curricula include all core components required.” This language allows accrediting organizations to force institutions to abandon or violate their constitutive religious doctrine. Federal policymakers should prohibit accrediting organizations from forcing institutions of higher education to abandon or violate their religious missions, including any policies or decisions concerning housing, employment, curriculum, self-governance, or student admission, continuing enrollment, or graduation. Federal policymakers also should provide religious institutions with swift means to find an alternate accreditor.
- Accreditation Autonomy Resolution
The activist education establishment uses interlocking bureaucracies to impose ever tighter social justice requirements on public universities without the consent of policymakers or of citizens, and to avoid responsibility for what they’re doing. Accrediting organizations use an administrator from one state university to impose a race preference requirement on the neighboring state university in the name of diversity. The next year they use an administrator from yet another state’s university to return the favor. State legislatures who want effective higher education reform must take back control of public universities from accrediting organizations.
They can do so. The accreditation system requires the consent of every accredited institution of higher education. The state government has given the higher education establishment the power to give this consent, but it can take this power back. State policymakers should pass legislation that authorizes the state legislature and governor to act together and send official guidance to the college presidents of its public university system. This guidance should direct college presidents to vote for or against any preferred candidate or policy in accreditation organizations. State policymakers can use official guidance to cripple the ability of activists to use accrediting organizations to impose their policies on public universities.
- Accreditor Replacement
The most effective means for states to solve the problem of unaccountable higher education accrediting organizations imposing social justice requirements on their public university systems is to found their own accrediting organization. Several states should jointly found such an accrediting organization, which would focus on certifying financial good health, refrain from imposing burdensome bureaucracies and social justice requirements, and remain accountable to state governments. This accrediting organization should also welcome private institutions, but the state governments should retain control of this accreditor.
One state cannot simply found such an accreditor by passing a law on its own. Public universities depend upon the current accreditation system to allow them to qualify to receive federal student loans and grants—and thus an enormous portion of their revenue. State public university systems would gain immense intellectual freedom from a unilateral declaration of independence from the existing accreditors, but at a great financial cost. We judge that it is more practical for several states to undertake a deliberate process of preparing a replacement accreditor, and ensuring that it receives recognition from the federal government’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI). These states should have their replacement accreditor in place, and ready to qualify the universities to receive federal student loans and grants, before they withdraw from their existing accreditors.
State policymakers should undertake a deliberate process of preparing a replacement accrediting organization, and ensuring that it receives recognition from the federal government’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI).
- Licensure Nondiscrimination
Radical activists seek to transform all accreditation and licensure into political activism to advance “social justice.” They work not least by taking over the professions—particularly by using state requirements for licensure and professional development to insert political litmus tests. Legislation is urgently needed to depoliticize all preparation programs and accrediting organizations to which the state delegates portions of its licensing power.
State policymakers should provide a comprehensive solution by depoliticizing and preventing group-identity discrimination in licensure requirements; depoliticizing materials for licensure and professional development; requiring transparency for materials for licensure and professional development; preventing state agencies from applying for funds from external organizations that tie funding to politicization; preventing politicized external funding for licensure and professional development; depoliticizing and preventing group-identity discrimination in preparation programs; depoliticizing and preventing group-identity discrimination in accrediting organizations; preventing alignment with politicized external standards; stating that the bill should not be construed to limit free discussion of any subject matter; stipulating limited exceptions; and providing means for enforcement.
We realize that states generally have separate statutory language that governs the licensure and professional development for each individual profession. We also realize that many states list specific accrediting organizations in their statutes, whose eligibility would be prohibited by this law. Alabama, for example, specifically grants the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) a statutory role in accreditation, as part of the licensure of social workers—and the CSWE’s accreditation requirements, as noted above, are extraordinarily politicized. Each state will need to consider how to integrate licensure nondiscrimination reform into its complex licensure and professional development statutes.
We do not pretend that these policies will fix every aspect of America’s accreditation system. The way America accredits is ferociously complex, and the accrediting system extends to an extraordinary number of different areas. Our recommendations do not speak to (for example) the details of accreditation of vocational education, or any of a large number of other specific subject matters. But we do believe that these reforms will restore a great deal of liberty to higher education—individual liberty to students and faculty within institutions of higher education, and liberty of institutions of higher education from the dictates of accrediting organizations. Policymakers at both the state and federal levels will do an extraordinary amount to improve higher education if they enact policies that follow our ten principles and priorities.