Dive Brief:

  • The regional accreditor of Western U.S. colleges announced Wednesday that it will consider some proposals to accredit institutions outside of its historical geographic boundaries.
  • WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) cited forthcoming rules from the U.S. Department of Education that eliminate geographic boundaries for regional accreditors as the reason for its decision, according to a letter Wednesday.
  • But some experts say the decision marks a departure from accreditors’ position during the rulemaking process and that it could reduce the quality of accreditation.

Dive Insight:

WSCUC has historically accredited schools in California, Hawaii and American territories in the Pacific. The accreditor plans to notify the Education Department of the change, explained the letter, which was signed by its chair, Reed Dasenbrock, and president, Jamienne Studley.

The step, they wrote, “is both deliberate and an opportunity for further meaningful change.”​

Studley told Education Dive in an interview Wednesday that institutions WSCUC​ accredits have asked if it would “consider applications for accreditation that support the directions they want to go in.” 

That could include, for instance, a college wanting to relocate its headquarters outside of California or Hawaii, or a system thinking of creating a new school, she said. 

“This first set is to be responsive to places that already know our accreditation system and would like to continue to work with us,” she said. WSCUC already approves additional or branch locations for its colleges in 15 other states. 

Studley indicated it may expand its accreditation purview in other ways. “We’re saying yes to considering these, but we’re not saying no to anything, because we have a conversation we need to undertake,” she said.

Dropping regional accreditors’ geographic boundaries is one of several changes to distance learning oversight that the Trump administration is rolling out in new rules that go into effect in July. 

During the process of developing the rules, regional accreditors appeared to oppose changes that would muddle the distinction between regional and national accreditors.

“The assumption was that they wouldn’t actually act on” the change, Antoinette Flores, director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, said in an interview with Education Dive.

Historically, regional accreditation has been seen as the premier form of accreditation in the U.S. Flores and other accreditation experts have said that getting rid of geographic barriers would make it easier for schools to seek out new accreditors if they were unable to meet the standards of their existing one, leading to lax oversight. 

Speaking to accreditors at a conference in Washington, D.C, last month, Diane Auer Jones, principal deputy under secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, said the move to get rid of regional boundaries from accreditors was partly to eliminate a “two-tier system” of accreditation “which over time had become a two-class system.” The change also acknowledged that accreditors already work outside their geographic boundaries, she said. 

Flores and Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy at New America, a left-leaning think tank, said they don’t see WSCUC’s intentions as a cause for concern. But they worry the decision to drop regional barriers, and WSCUC’s subsequent move, means the broader accreditation landscape will be subject to competition that reduces the quality of oversight.

“Having one regional accreditor move into the national accreditor space opens the door for all of them to do it, and then, to the extent that there is any sort of group pressure, peer pressure, to keep their processes rigorous and to aim a little higher, that pressure goes away completely,” McCann told Education Dive.

WSCUC’s decision, she said, “is going to be the first domino that tips over the rest.”

While other agencies may be considering a similar move, Studley said “each of us will decide separately what role we want to play, and that may be a long-term set of conversations.” 

In a statement to Education Dive, Judith Eaton, president for the Council for Higher Education Accreditation called the announcement “an important development in the life of regional accreditation,” describing it as an “example of innovation in accreditation.”

“We will all learn from WSCUC’s experience here,” she said.

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