The Next Culture War Battle? College AccreditationRoundup
tags: Florida, academic freedom, colleges and universities
Jeremy C. Young is the Freedom to Learn program director at PEN America.
PEN America Researcher Jeffrey Sachs is a political scientist at Acadia University, where he specializes in free speech issues, academic freedom, and judicial politics in the Middle East.
The War on Accreditation
Former president Donald Trump has vowed to “fire” them. Republicans in Congress would like to restrict them. Florida governor Ron DeSantis wants the courts to break them. And Christopher Rufo, the chief architect of today’s “Critical Race Theory” panic, recently declared them his “next target.”
The culture wars have come for university accreditors.
For many Americans, the process by which colleges and universities are accredited may seem obscure or unimportant, but accreditation agencies matter. There are seven major bodies in the United States, the so-called “regional” accreditors, that accredit higher education institutions. Many majors and disciplines, such as nursing and engineering, also have their own accrediting bodies.
Simply put, accreditation is one of the principal guarantors of quality in America’s higher education system and one of the major ways students can differentiate between a reputable institution and a diploma mill. Each accreditor has its own standards for issues like graduation rates, financial health, and curricula. Accredited institutions themselves help develop these standards as well as plans for their implementation and evaluation. Ultimately, public and private universities must meet these standards to acquire and maintain accreditation.
And they have a very good reason to do so. Under the Federal Higher Education Act, unless a college is accredited by a federally recognized agency, its students are ineligible for Pell grants, federal loans, and work-study funds; nearly 84% of all college students rely on this financial support. Without accreditation, they may also have difficulty getting their degrees recognized by prospective employers or licensing boards. For the majority of universities, de-accreditation amounts to a death sentence.
This is the dynamic that some lawmakers and commentators want to change, and for one very specific reason: because accrediting bodies are a shield against government censorship.