By Katherine Demedis

The loss of institutional accreditation is often a death knell for Title IV eligible institutions because most institutions enroll a substantial number of students who depend on Title IV funds to finance their educations. With its recent revisions to 34 C.F.R. § 600.11 published on November 1, 2019, the U.S. Department of Education may have provided a life line.  The Department’s new rules allow institutions that are or have been subject to an adverse action by their current accrediting agency to change accreditors or maintain accreditation by more than one institutional accreditor.

Under the current rule, an institution seeking to change accrediting agencies or maintain multiple accrediting agencies must demonstrate reasonable cause for the change.  Moreover, an institution is not considered eligible for the Title IV programs within 24 months of having its accreditation withdrawn, revoked, or otherwise terminated for cause, or having withdrawn voluntarily from its accreditation status under a show-cause or suspension order.

As amended, the new rule allows the Department discretion to determine the institution has reasonable cause to obtain accreditation during the 24 month window even if the institution has been subject to one of these adverse actions.  For example, the rule allows the Department to determine that reasonable cause exists for a change in accreditors if the accrediting agency did not provide the institution due process or applied its standards inconsistently, or if the adverse action was the result of an agency’s failure to respect the institution’s mission, including a religious mission.

For an institution seeking to maintain multiple accreditations, the Department may determine there is good cause if the institution’s primary interest in seeking multiple accreditations is based on that agency’s geographic area, program-area focus, or mission, even if the institution has been subject to an adverse accreditation action in the past 24 months.

According to the Department, the new rule strikes a balance between preventing struggling institutions from avoiding the consequences of an adverse action while also maintaining recourse for institutions that have been treated unfairly or have legitimate reasons for seeking multiple accreditations unrelated to findings or allegations of noncompliance.

Commenters to the proposed rule expressed concern, however, that these changes would permit institutions to more easily switch to a new accrediting agency or maintain a back-up agency, enabling institutions to skirt enforcement.  The Department disagreed – noting that institutions are still required to submit information about their prior or current accreditation to the Secretary and to demonstrate reasonable cause.

Arguably – this rule change fills a void.  Although the Department’s rules require accrediting agencies to provide institutions with due process in order to maintain recognition from the Secretary, the Department has previously not had authority to provide relief to individual institutions when an accreditor violates that requirement.  For a school that is in danger of having its accreditation withdrawn and believes that its accreditor has violated its right to due process, the revised rule could provide a second chance.  Of course, even if a school convinces the Department that it has reasonable cause to change accreditors under circumstances described above, the process of becoming accredited by a new agency is typically complex and time-consuming, and consistent with current rules, the new accreditor must explain to the Department why the other accreditor’s adverse action does not preclude its grant of accreditation. A school may find it difficult to obtain new accreditation in time to maintain its Title IV eligibility before its current accreditor moves to withdraw accreditation. Still, they now have a fighting chance.

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


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