Higher Education Accreditation and The States

Federalism protects us from the tyranny of faction. It minimizes the damage that a democracy’s majority, giddy with certainty, might inflict upon a minority. It encourages local experimentation, with each state seeking its own best path towards meeting the needs of its citizens. And when it comes to accreditation and oversight of higher education, it is something of a mess.

CHEA, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, recently posted a report: “State Uses of Accreditation: Results of a Fifty-State Inventory.” It is a simple review, almost blindingly straightforward. CHEA researchers studied how each state uses/ignores accreditation as states authorize institutions of higher education  and how they regulate them. In addition, the report provides information on how states decide availability of financial assistance, develop and implement student transfer credit policies, and make licensure decisions about institutions.

The findings are straightforward and simple. No one model is applicable and there is neither rhyme nor reason in the connection between accreditation and state oversight. With the federal government increasingly keen on regulating higher education, the varied role of the states is an issue that should not be ignored.

Digging into the results is a primer on academic policy and bureaucracy. Some states “accredit” while others “authorize” and some “approve.” That does not get to the states that license or certify or oversee. In some states one agency oversees all higher education. In other states there are divisions between for profit and not for profit. Similarly, accreditation from one of the six regional accreditors may nor may not carry weight the respective state agency.

When it comes to transfer policies, the results are equally mixed. Sixteen states call for a system that covers public and private institutions and twenty-two states have public only systems.

The meat of the report is a one-page summary for each state. It may not have a gripping narrative or much by the way of plot, but it is fascinating.

For those of us toiling at institutions that would stand to benefit from a bit more aggressive behavior by the accreditors, the report also serves as a clear map of the complexity inherent to higher education oversight.

David Potash

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