On July 19, 2022, the U.S. Department of Education (the Department) issued three new guidance documents pertaining to institutions adding or changing an institutional accreditor. This new guidance was announced by Department Undersecretary James Kvaal during his opening remarks at the July National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) meeting.
In the first guidance document, Dear Colleague Letter GEN-22-11, the Department outlines the process that an institution must follow to change its primary accrediting agency or add a new accrediting agency. It clarifies that it is rescinding and superseding the Electronic Announcement published August 5, 2016, which only required that an institution seeking to change its accrediting agency submit a notice to the Department prior to applying for the new accreditation. Under the new process, the Department is requiring that an institution changing or adding a new accreditor first apply for and obtain the Department’s approval before doing so. An institution should not change or relinquish its institutional accreditation until it has followed the steps outlined by the Department, including:
- Notify Federal Student Aid (FSA) in writing prior to submitting an application to the new accrediting agency, with supporting documentation pertaining to the reason for the change.
- Receipt of a notice from FSA that it has approved of the institution proceeding with its application.
- Upon approval to make the change, update its E-App to indicate it is changing its primary accreditor and providing supporting documentation of the change.
- Receipt of a notice from the Department that it acknowledges the new accrediting agency as the primary accrediting agency or multiple accreditations.
In the second guidance document, Dear Colleague Letter GEN-22-10, the Department details the factors that it considers in determining whether to approve of an institution’s request to change or add an accrediting agency. An institution must demonstrate reasonable cause for changing or adding an accrediting agency. The guidance states that subject to certain exceptions, FSA will not find reasonable cause if the institution:
- Has had its accreditation withdrawn, revoked or otherwise terminated for cause during the preceding 24 months, unless such withdrawal, revocation or termination has been rescinded by the same accrediting agency; or
- Has been subject to a probation or equivalent, show cause order or suspension order during the preceding 24 months.
The guidance states that FSA may consider additional factors including:
- The institution’s stated reason for the proposed change or multiple accreditations;
- Whether the institution is seeking the new or additional accreditations to lessen oversight or rigor, evade inquiries or sanctions, or the risk of inquiries or sanctions by its existing accrediting agency;
- Whether the proposed new or additional accreditations would strengthen institutional quality;
- Whether the institution is seeking a new or additional accreditations because the new agency and its standards are more closely aligned with the institution’s mission than the current accrediting agency;
- Whether the proposed new or added accreditation involves an accrediting agency that has been subject to Department action; and
- Whether the institution’s membership in the new accrediting agency would be voluntary, as required by 34 CFR § 602.14(a).
In the third guidance document, a letter to institutional accrediting agencies, the Department clarifies the requirement in 34 CFR § 602.14(a) that Department-recognized accrediting agencies must have a “voluntary membership” of institutions, particularly in light of Florida law SB 7044, which became effective July 1, 2022, and requires Florida public institutions to change their institutional accreditor after five years. The Department has expressed concern that this law potentially undermines the voluntary relationship between an institution and its accreditor.
The Department states that it will assess voluntary membership when: 1) institutions seek to change or add new accrediting agencies; and 2) it reviews accrediting agencies during the recognition process. The Department emphasized that while it may find there was voluntariness when an institution seeks to change or add a new accrediting agency, accrediting agencies should also conduct their own independent evaluations of whether an institutional change of accrediting agencies (or multiple accreditation) is voluntary before it approves an accreditation application.