By Katherine Demedis

Institutional accrediting agencies in the United States have long been divided into national and regional agencies, with the seven regional accrediting agencies operating in distinct geographic regions in the country.  However, the Department of Education’s new accreditation rule implements several changes intended to eliminate the distinction between regional and national accrediting agencies.

First, the Department revised the definition of “scope of recognition” in 34 C.F.R. § 602.3 to remove the reference to the “geographic area of accrediting activities.”  As explained in its June 2019 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the Department determined that the current practice of limiting the scope of an accreditor’s approval to a geographic region is outdated because regional accrediting agencies currently accredit institutions with branch campuses and additional locations outside of the stated geographic scope.  In addition, the Department wants to encourage competition by allowing agencies to accredit institutions that are located outside their traditional geographic regions.  Along these same lines, accrediting agencies will no longer be required to seek approval to expand their geographic area – instead an agency will be required to notify the Department and publicly disclose the change on its website under 34 C.F.R. § 602.12(b)(1).

Second, the Department modified its geographic area eligibility requirement for accrediting agencies seeking recognition at 34 C.F.R. § 602.11 (see our prior post for a discussion of changes to the other eligibility requirements).  Today, an accrediting agency must demonstrate that its activities cover 1) a State (if the agency is part of a State government), 2) a region that includes at least three States reasonably close to one another, or 3) the entire United States.  Under the revised rule, a region must include any state where an agency accredits a main campus, a branch campus, or an additional location of an institution and clarifies that the agency does not need to accredit a main campus in that state in order to include that state in its region.  Thus, a regional accrediting agency will be required to publish a list of states in which it operates, to include states that have not historically been part of its region if it accredits a location of an institution located in that state.  However, regional accreditors also are afforded discretion to limit the scope of their own membership; the revised rule clarifies that an accrediting agency will not be forced to accept applications from institutions located in a state where the agency only accredits a branch campus or additional location.

Third, the Department will no longer categorize institutional agencies as regional or national but will instead refer to all of the agencies it recognizes as “nationally recognized” accrediting agencies, which more closely aligns with the Higher Education Act.  However, agencies will not be prohibited from identifying themselves as regional or national accreditors as they see fit.

One item to watch for is whether other entities will follow the Department’s lead and stop relying on the distinction between regional and national accrediting agencies. For example, many regionally accredited institutions will, as a matter of practice, only accept transfer credit from other regionally accredited institutions. State agencies, programmatic accreditors, and licensing bodies also sometimes require regional accreditation, as opposed to national accreditation, as a prerequisite for approval, accreditation, occupational licensure, etc., based in part on the perception that regional accrediting agencies are more prestigious than their national counterparts. Addressing this perception, the Department faulted regional accreditors for a “pervasive lack of focus on student learning and student outcomes” as compared to national accreditors and suggested that regional agencies benefit from the reputations of a small number of their highly selective member institutions. The Department also stressed that it has historically applied the same standards for recognition to both national and regional accrediting agencies, and so there is no meaningful qualitative difference between regional and national accreditors in the Department’s view.

It also remains to be seen whether the regional accrediting agencies will decide to accept applications from institutions with main campuses that are outside of their traditional geographic scope.  This would be a significant shift that would provide institutions with more choices for seeking accreditation.

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. Department of Education’s Accreditation Rule Eases Process for New Accrediting Agencies Seeking Recognition by Katherine Demedis
  3. Institutions Subject to Adverse Actions Have Opportunity to Change Accreditors Under the Department’s New Rule by Katherine Demedis

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