More on Florida’s Higher Ed “Reform”

Pointless change that will increase costs and create confusion.

“Ron DeSantis” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

As James Joyner noted yesterday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has signed into law a series of new regulations for higher education in the state. The headline has been about tenure, but let me refer you to another, seemingly minor and boring provision:

Through the bill, Florida’s public colleges and universities will be required to seek accreditation from different accreditors in consecutive accreditation cycles. 

Anyone who works in higher education administration will tell you that this is an insane provision. It will create work and substantial costs for no benefit whatsoever.

Without boring everyone to death, let me note that all legitimate colleges and universities in the United States are accredited by one of several regional accrediting bodies. For the most part, where you are located dictates who accredits you. Regional accreditation is necessary for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that for schools to be able to receive federal financial aid dollars, they have to be regionally accredited. Regional accreditation also provides a way for credit taken at one college or university to be transferred to another accredited school as well as to have different schools recognize the degrees conferred by other institutions.

Florida is in the southeast, and therefore its schools are accredited by SACSCOC: the Southern Association of College and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Regional Accrediting Organizations | Council for Higher Education  Accreditation

I think it is fair to say that most people are largely unaware of this process and its significance. Indeed, there are some students who attend non-accredited or nationally accredited (which sounds better, but isn’t) schools only to find that their courses will not transfer to other schools, or that their undergraduate degrees will not be recognized by the graduate school they wish to attend. Indeed, most faculty are probably only generally aware of the work that goes into maintaining accreditation.

Like with tenure, there are plenty of valid conversations to be had about the pros and cons of the accreditation process, but I will say that it serves a legitimate function, albeit it can also be fraught with annoying tedium of Kafkaesque proportions.

Regardless, regional accreditation is a reality and a necessity under the current structure of the regulation of higher ed in the United States (and, even for K-12, but that is another discussion). Schools are accredited for ten-year periods, with five-year interim reports required with an ongoing process of compliance. This is not just something that happens once a decade. Rather, it is something that comes up on almost a weekly basis in one form or the other.

To change accreditors every ten years would mean an overlapping process of maintaining existing accreditation while simultaneously preparing to seek new accreditation with a new entity. It would have to be overlapping, and by a number of years, because a given school cannot risk losing regional accreditation even temporarily, lest it not be able to receive federal dollars for students who need them to pay for their educations. Indeed, as Inside Higher Ed reported last month: Education Department Warns Florida About Accreditation Bill.

“The Department urges you to consider the unintended consequences of this law,” James Kvaal, under secretary for education, wrote in a letter to DeSantis. “The steps involved in preparing for accreditation and even changing accreditors may be tedious and costly, which could lead to increased institutional burden and costs that may be passed down to students and families.”

Higher education institutions must be accredited in order for their students to access federal financial aid, including federal loans and Pell Grants. Colleges that lose accreditation often see their enrollments languish.

Advocates of the bill say institutions would benefit from a fresh perspective. But Kvaal warned in his letter that changing accreditors with each cycle could “compromise institutional accountability and quality because it would not allow for a full review of institutional practices and demonstrated continuous improvement brought forward in the prior accreditor review, which is one of the core purposes of accreditation.”

I honestly do not see how having to switch accreditors would result in “fresh perspective[s].” Instead, it will mean trying to harmonize local rules, policies, and procedures to make sure they align with the accreditation standards of multiple bodies (that sounds like fun). It will almost certainly mean a need for more personnel and add the compliance costs since for part of the cycle a school would be paying two accreditors, not just one.

I honestly cannot think of a good or productive reason for this policy. My best guess is that it is revenge against SACSCOC for weighing in on DeSantis blocking some University of Florida professors from testifying regarding the elections as expert witnesses. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported at the time: U. of Florida’s Accreditor Will Investigate Denial of Professors’ Voting-Rights Testimony.

Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges, told The Chronicle on Monday that the accreditor would follow its policy on investigating unsolicited information. Under those rules, accreditors can dig into campus happenings between review cycles if they learn of potential “significant issues of compliance.” Accreditation is needed for colleges to receive federal student aid.

Wheelan said the accreditor would send a letter to Florida’s president, W. Kent Fuchs, on Monday or early Tuesday “asking for information to verify or clarify the news media’s account of what happened,” she wrote in an email. “From there, we will decide if there are any noncompliance issues.” She declined to comment further.

Many accreditors, including Florida’s, demand that governing boards be independent and free from influence from external sources.

Indeed, The Daily Business Review reported the following just last month (Universities Board, Accreditor at Odds Over ‘Undue Influence’):

During a meeting Tuesday, Alan Levine, chairman of the Board of Governors’ Strategic Planning Committee, suggested that tensions with the current organization have been building for some time.

“I’ve held my tongue on this for a year now,” Levine said, before listing examples that he said gave him “grave concern” about the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, or SACSCOC.

Levine pointed to SACSCOC writing letters to higher-education officials on three issues at Florida State University, the University of Florida and the University of South Florida.

Last year, the agency raised questions about a potential conflict of interest involving state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran when he was a candidate to become president of Florida State University. Corcoran is a member of the Board of Governors, which ultimately must sign off on the appointments of university presidents.

SACSCOC President Belle Wheelan wrote in a May letter to the Board of Governors that if Corcoran didn’t vacate his position on the board while a candidate for Florida State president, SACSCOC would “find the institution out of compliance” with the accrediting body’s rules.

So, what we have here is DeSantis and his allies using legislation as a weapon against SACSCOC. I am not sure there is really any other way around it. Changing accreditors does not, in any way, enhance post-secondary education in the state of Florida. Instead, it just creates confusion, costs, and unnecessary extra work. If I was involved in compliance at a Florida university, I would be seriously considering looking for a job in another state, because this change is going to be a nightmare.

One thing that is striking about the press release from the Governor’s office is that it quotes DeSantis as saying “Florida’s public college and university system is number one in the country” and Commissioner of Higher Education, Richard Corocan, noting “Florida’s #1 ranked higher education system.” Taking those rankings as accurate for the sake of conversation, let me say that I miss the old-school conservative notion that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If Florida’s schools are ranked where they are, it must mean they are doing something correctly. And messing with things like tenure and accreditation (and hence making Florida schools less attractive to the employees needed to run these institutions) is not a great way to maintain success. This is especially true when the “reforms” in question are not actually aimed at fixing a problem but are instead a mix of revenge politics and red meat to feed the base.

FILED UNDER: Education, US Politics, ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. SC_Birdflyte says:

    It appears that the DeSantis administration’s policy declarations are an ongoing tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

    2
  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    Truth

    I honestly cannot think of a good or productive reason for this policy. My best guess is that it is revenge against SACSCOC for weighing in on DeSantis blocking some University of Florida professors from testifying regarding the elections as expert witnesses.

    Another checkbox in the proof that DeSantis is a neo-Fascist.

    3
  3. mattbernius says:

    This is especially true when the “reforms” in question are not actually aimed at fixing a problem but are instead a mix of revenge politics and red meat to feed the base.

    Yup. The primary reason for this policy, like those going on in a number of states, is to advance the particular governor as a Culture Warrior ahead of the 2024 Presidential elections.

    I expect we’re going to see a lot more of this from DeSantis and other folks who think they are heir apparents like Youngkin in VA. Also, I’m genuinely curious if Abbott in TX is thinking about making a run as well.

    1
  4. Kurtz says:

    The first time I heard DeSantis speak, I thought, “This guy doesn’t strike me as intelligent.”

    Then I saw his “Boots” commercial wherein the boots he used to work while an undergrad at Yale. Then I reconsidered my first impression. Maybe this persona is just his way of coming across as folksy.

    As time has passed, I’ve never really figured out which impression is closer to reality. But neither points to him as a solid choice to lead a state or nation. But his actions as governor embody the GOP turn from conservatism to right wing authoritarianism.

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  5. Michael Cain says:

    Question from ignorance: Do the commissions even do out-of-region accreditation?

    1
  6. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Kurtz: This is where coming from a small town gives me a bit of an edge, I think. I would never, never, assume someone is dumb from the way they talk. I don’t care if they speak in Ebonics or Jive or DownHome or Southern, or Italian New Jersey. It don’t mean nuthin except as an ID of where they come from.

    DeSantis is not remotely dumb, but he has figured out how to relate to the voters he wants to reach. He is a much more dangerous version of Trump.

    Also, the moves he is making are a lot more bulletproof than Abbots. I think Abbot is going to be pretty vulnerable – I think he can be beat and made to look bad.

    And really, beating an authoritarian wannabe just once is enough to send them to the sidelines. There whole thing is “You can’t beat me” If we can, then they are useless to their constituency.

    Best shot of beating DeSantis is with Disney. But it may end up a draw.

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  7. Jay L Gischer says:

    Yeah retaliation at SACSCOC seems the most likely motivation for this. But there’s not much political juice from this, since it’s buried.

  8. MarkedMan says:

    Interesting catch, Steven.

    This goes to something I’ve been saying for a while: Republicans no longer know how to write legislation. It is not an easy skill and one that takes many years to master. It also must be done in concert with many, many inputs and authors, so it is also not easy to project manage. But after Gingrich, more and more Republican legislators were content to remain in ignorance and let their interest groups and patrons write the legislation for them. But of course,they were often single-interest, and didn’t really care about any other part of the bill.

    1
  9. Kari Q says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Which is just one of many reasons why term limits are a bad idea. Legislators barely have time to learn their jobs before they are limited out.

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  10. Kurtz says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    I’ve expressed similar sentiments to those expressed in your post. In general, I agree. But your response doesn’t account for context.

    We aren’t talking about an auto mechanic who can not only diagnose and repair any problem no matter the year, make, and model including instances in which his only exposure to the auto in question is listening to the engine rev over the phone. But he is a bit hard to understand because of his heavy Low Country dialect. Only to find out that the mechanic also spends his free time reading Hegel and could hold his own in a discussion with any PhD candidate in philosophy.

    We are talking about a major party candidate for governor in a large, diverse state who made campaign commercials about his work boots that–ahem–just happened to mention his educational pedigree. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that this person sound intelligent. In fact, his public speaking style belies an arrogance that leads him to think that in order to appear folksy, he has to sound a certain way.

    To be clear, it’s not like I grew up in Portland or Seattle, Boston or New York. I grew up (mostly) just outside a shitty city in the Deep South. If you ask me to choose the more intelligent person between Ben Shapiro or Jay-Z, I would choose the latter. Given my political leanings, if you subbed out Shapiro for, say, Nathan J. Robinson, I’d make the same choice.

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  11. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    @Kurtz:

    Being smart and sounding dumb is a tried and true manner of sounding authentic for those pol with certain constituencies. Take Louisiana senator John Kennedy, Vanderbilt, Oxford, opens his mouth when a camera is around and sounds like he just swam out of a bayou, but in private and in the Senate, the accent nearly disappears.

    DeSantis is likely the same. Hard to believe that he would have achieved the success in the corporate world that he did if he sounded like a redneck from the Everglades. The cultural bias in the business world would tuned him out. Like Kennedy, DeSantis is a phoney.

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  12. Jon says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Take Louisiana senator John Kennedy

    Oh my god please take him, he’s an embarrassment to Louisiana and we already have enough on our plate with Clay Higgins. The accent only appeared after he switched parties and became a Republican.

  13. just nutha says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Not a phoney, a chameleon. (He may well be a phoney, too, but the example doesn’t show that, in my take at least.)

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  14. James Joyner says:

    I’m befuddled as to who it is that DeSantis and company think will even step in to fill the void. There is literally one and only one credible accreditation body that covers Florida.

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  15. Mimai says:

    From the bill:

    authorizing institutions to remain with current accreditors under certain circumstances

    I couldn’t find specifics, though I didn’t look super close. Methinks this might be the loophole.

  16. @Mimai: It may be.

  17. @Michael Cain:

    Question from ignorance: Do the commissions even do out-of-region accreditation?

    @James Joyner:

    I’m befuddled as to who it is that DeSantis and company think will even step in to fill the void. There is literally one and only one credible accreditation body that covers Florida.

    As I understand it, the DeVos DOE loosened rules making it possible for schools to pursue accreditation from outside their region. For example, the new University of Austin is seeking accreditation from HLC instead of SACSCOC (HLC is reputed to be less stringent than SACSCOC).

  18. @Steven L. Taylor: It used to be that for-profits schools would purposefully HQ themselves in HLC territory because it was easier to deal with, or so the story goes.

  19. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @mattbernius: There’s an interesting article in the latest issue of Texas Monthly about Abbott and his ambitions. The unsurprising conclusion is that Abbott’s only constant belief is that he must constantly strive to rise to higher and higher office. It makes grifting so much simpler.

  20. Kurtz says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Hard to believe that he would have achieved the success in the corporate world that he did if he sounded like a redneck from the Everglades.

    I’m unsure of his corporate experience. From what I’ve read, his career timeline:

    Graduates Yale
    Teaches History for a year
    Attends then graduates from Harvard Law
    Joins Navy
    Deployed to Iraq
    Returns and appointed as AUSA until 2010
    Runs for House in 2012

  21. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: That figures. SACSOC is reputed to be the most demanding of the regional bodies but maybe that’s folklore. My frustration is that the process (which I’ve been through at Chattanooga, Troy, and Marine Corps U—all under the SACSOC umbrella) is simultaneously arduous and porous. It’s a giant PITA for schools that are obviously doing their jobs to jump through all the hoops and yet plenty of degree mills manage to do so.

  22. Gavin says:

    Requiring all schools in the state to constantly be switching to another agency seems unproductive to a degree that I almost couldn’t imagine would be possible. Because all the agencies have non-overlapping timelines, they’d actually have to constantly keep track of no less than 3 timelines — current one, prior one, and next one..

  23. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Kurtz:

    you’re right, I confused DeSantis with Scott.

    1
  24. @James Joyner: While I am convinced that we need some sort of accreditation process, I will readily admit that the one we have right now could use a lot of work.

  25. Hal_10000 says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m guessing they’ll set up some conservative Federalist-Society-esque “accreditation” org that will evaluate universities based on how liberal they are.

  26. @Hal_10000: That won’t get them access to federal dollars.

  27. Kari Q says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Unless, of course, they change the rules the next time a Republican becomes president.

  28. @Kari Q: Indeed.