By Katherine Demedis

On November 1, 2019, the U.S. Department of Education published final regulations that, among other things, revised its process for recognizing accrediting agencies, making it easier for new accrediting agencies to become recognized, thereby potentially increasing competition among agencies.

The new regulations, which will be effective July 1, 2020, were initially published in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on June 12, 2019 after the negotiated rulemaking committee reached consensus on the content of the rule – a rare occurrence in the last decade.

An accrediting agency must be recognized by the Department in order for its accredited institutions to be eligible to participate in the Title IV federal student aid programs.  Accreditation by a recognized agency is also used as a requirement for institutions or programs seeking approval or authorization by some state agencies, programmatic accrediting agencies, and by the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA).  As such, being accredited by a recognized accrediting agency is very helpful to a postsecondary institution.

The new regulations change the basic eligibility requirements for accrediting agencies seeking recognition, which currently include: 1) Federal Link, 2) Geographic Scope, 3) Accrediting Experience, and 4) Acceptance by Others.  We address each of these below with the exception of geographic scope, which will be discussed in a future post.

Federal Link

Under the current and the revised versions of 34 C.F.R. § 602.11, an institutional accrediting agency must demonstrate that its accreditation is a required element in enabling at least one institution to establish eligibility to participate in the Title IV programs.  The new rule adds language stating an agency can satisfy this requirement if an agency accredits an institution that 1) participates in the Title IV programs and 2) could designate the agency seeking recognition as its link to the Title IV program, even if the institution currently designates another institutional accrediting agency to establish its eligibility.

In the NPRM, the Department pointed out the cart-before-the-horse aspect of the rule, noting that until a new agency is recognized, it is highly unlikely that an accredited institution would relinquish its current accreditation that enables it to be eligible for Title IV, to rely on accreditation by an agency that is not currently recognized.  The most recent revisions are meant to “decrease barriers to entry and enable new agencies to more easily enter the marketplace.”

Accrediting Experience

Accrediting agencies seeking recognition also are required to have conducted accrediting activities for at least two years prior to seeking recognition under 34 C.F.R. § 602.12.  The Department has now relaxed that requirement by exempting an agency seeking initial recognition that is affiliated with, or is a division of, an already recognized agency from the two-year requirement.

The rationale for this change is that in cases where recognized accrediting agencies re-organize or spin off a portion of their accrediting business by setting up a separate agency, the new entity has substantial accrediting experience obviating the need for a demonstration of two years of accrediting experience.

Acceptance by Others

The Department removed the requirement that an agency must demonstrate acceptance by others, such as educators, educational institutions, and licensing bodies, practitioners, and employers under 34 C.F.R. § 602.13.

Several commenters objected to the decision to remove this requirement, arguing that wide acceptance by one’s peers is an important criterion to ensure adequate oversight of institutions of higher education.   The Department responded that it believed § 602.13 is duplicative of other requirements and that the revisions to § 602.32(b) requiring an agency seeking initial recognition to submit letters of support from accredited institutions or programs, educators, or employers and practitioners, explaining the role for such an agency and the reasons why they believe the Department should recognize the agency, would satisfy the same objective.

Commenters also generally questioned whether these changes meant to encourage new accrediting agencies to apply for recognition were needed and said that the Department did not provide evidence that new accrediting agencies are having trouble seeking recognition.  In response, the Department pointed to the fact that very few new institutional accrediting agencies have been recognized under the current regulations.

Read other blog posts from our series on the Department of Education’s final rule:
  1. Early Implementation of State Authorization Rule Changes by Dan Brozovic
  2. Institutions Subject to Adverse Actions Have Opportunity to Change Accreditors Under the Department’s New Rule by Katherine Demedis


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