No More Regional Accreditors
On Tuesday I sat in on a webinar hosted by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), which is our accreditor. The audience for the webinar was college presidents and provosts, so I was there as the equivalent of a provost. (Brookdale doesn’t use that title.) The purpose of the webinar seemed mostly to bring us up-to-date on some pretty dramatic changes that have occurred over the last year.
Some of them were obvious, like a move to virtual visits made necessary by COVID. Fair enough. Some were relatively detail-y and inside baseball. But a couple of them struck me as worthy of more public notice.
The first, which astute readers will already have noticed, is that it no longer refers to itself as a “regional” accreditor. It’s now an “institutional” accreditor. The change came in the wake of the Department of Education repealing the regional monopoly rules in 2019, allowing accreditors to cross into each other’s territory and compete. That move collapsed the distinction between national and regional accreditors. Historically, regional accreditors were considered the best, with national ones considered somewhat suspect. Many (though not all) for-profit colleges and universities worked with national accreditors, largely due to their perceived leniency.
As I , that’s a seemingly small change that portends a much larger change.
The structure of a dues-supported institution passing judgment on its members could look like a conflict of interest, but that conflict has historically been constrained by the grant of regional monopoly. A college in, say, New York, effectively had no choice but to work with Middle States if it wanted access to financial aid dollars. It couldn’t take its dues elsewhere. Local monopoly power served to insulate accreditors from market pressures from, say, unhappy members voting with their budgets. No human endeavor is perfectly neutral, but having every player kick in money to pay the umpire aboveboard kept the umpire honest.
But if regional accreditors suddenly have to compete with each other, and with national accreditors, the game changes. If a given college isn’t happy with requirements from its own accreditor, it could shop around for another one. (In response to an audience question about whether it’s possible that the changes would lead to accreditor shopping, [Diane] Auer Jones replied, “Of course it’s possible.”) An accreditor that starts losing business will do what it has to do to survive. With the old regional monopoly gone, it loses its insulation from market pressures. Now, each player gets to choose his own umpire, and pay him.
(In retrospect, I shouldn’t have gendered the umpire. Other than that, I stand by the passage.)
Heather Perfetti, the president of the MSCHE, referred to its outreach into other states as an exciting opportunity for growth. Anticipating the obvious question -- can’t other former regionals do the same thing here? -- she noted that the former regionals aren’t allowed to ask each other about their plans, lest they run afoul of antitrust laws.
To which I thought, wow. Antitrust is being used against nonprofits in order to make it easier for for-profits to accreditor shop. That’s a gobsmacking perversion of purpose. What looks like a small technical change can unleash all manner of mischief.
Presumably to conserve resources, MSCHE announced that colleges with “adverse findings” will have to go through arbitration before they can sue. Presumably in response to public pressure around colleges that closed abruptly, it also announced that it will require colleges to develop teach-out plans under a broader set of circumstances than it has. (Teach-out plans are basically contingency plans for students to finish their degrees if their college closes. They usually involve large-scale transfers to designated schools.) Both of those moves struck me as creating business opportunities for competitors, now that there will be competitors.
I don’t blame the MSCHE for sending somewhat mixed signals. The rules by which it plays have been capriciously (I’m being nice) upended, and it’s trying to see where it can stand. In the very short term, inertia may blunt some of the impact of the rule changes. But if the rule changes remain in effect for very long, the force of economic gravity will eventually assert itself. It can’t not. With various national accreditors vying for the business of selling access to Title IV financial aid, shenanigans are sure to ensue.
Accreditors are the organized consciences of the industry. They’re imperfect -- those of us who’ve been around a while have our pet complaints -- but they’re necessary. Without honest brokers to vouch for quality, it will be the Wild West out there. We saw what happened when the financial sector was “governed” that way; it took a decade to undo (most of) the damage from that. As the webinar went on, I had the sinking feeling that I had seen this movie before, and I didn’t like the ending.