June 21, 2023
Accreditation in higher education is an arcane subject. Some might even say a boring one. When I was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, few reporters wanted to cover the issue.
Trustees I talk with seem oddly interested in accreditation. To them, it’s a risk. Lose accreditation, lose access to federal financial aid dollars. Unless you’re sitting on billions of dollars in endowment, you’ll be out of business in a few months, or maybe if you’re lucky, years. Of course, I always remind trustees that it’s hard to lose accreditation. College presidents, meanwhile, find accreditation a convenient scapegoat for everything they claim they want to do at their institution, but can’t.
What’s most interesting to me is that prospective students and their families rarely pay any attention to an institution’s accreditation—what’s necessary to access federal aid. If the topic crosses their mind at all during the college search, they’re drawn to a campus that markets its “specialized accreditation” for programs ranging from teacher education to landscape architecture to business schools. This type of accreditation is not required—and although it’s advertised as a way for students to find “high-quality programs”—the requirements that schools need to meet to get specialized accreditation aren’t always clear to the end consumer.
Lately, accreditation has been in the news because two of the leading contenders for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination want to ditch the current system. In announcing his presidential bid in May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called accrediting agencies “cartels.” Former president Donald Trump a few weeks earlier said he’d “fire” the existing accreditors and create new ones to reclaim “our once-great educational institutions from the radical left.”