UVa’s accreditation by the Southern Commission on Colleges comes with lots of strings.
by Reed Fawell
A few days ago, we asked the question, “Who runs UVa?”, highlighting the little-known Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCC), a regional accrediting organization that presumes to pass judgment on the University of Virginia’s governance practices.
Why should one of the nation’s most prestigious universities care what an obscure group based in Decatur, Ga., and representing 800 mostly obscure colleges and universities, has to say about the way it runs its affairs? After all, membership is voluntary, is it not? UVa is free to seek accreditation elsewhere. It’s not as if, with its prestigious standing in the higher education community, UVa really needs the stamp of approval from an accrediting agency whose function is to monitor marginal and failing institutions, does it?
The answer is simple: Without SACSCC accreditation, University of Virginia students are no longer eligible to receive federal student loans. According to the Project on Student Debt, 35% of all Wahoos graduate with student debt averaging $21,000 per borrower. Of that, 83% is federal debt. Add it all up, and federal loans account for roughly $154 million in a $2.6 billion budget and compares to $95 million allocated to AccessUVa, the university’s own student aid program.
How did the SACSCC and other accrediting groups become so powerful?
Educational institutions first began to regulate themselves in the 19th Century. Organizations, such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools founded in 1895, arose to certify that members adhered to an agreed-upon set of standards. By subjecting themselves voluntarily to such regimes of accreditation, members could distinguish themselves from the proliferating number of “schools” proclaiming themselves to be “colleges.” Certification by a select group of peers bestowed a badge of distinction that conferred a competitive advantage in a crowded field.
Because membership was voluntary, associations’ enforcement powers were limited. Members could leave at any time for any reason. Thus, associations served at the pleasure of its members. The system thereby provided a common-sense restraint on impractical, burdensome or expensive regulatory oversight while assuring students (and their employers) a measure of quality before they invested time, money and effort to earn a degree from a member institution.
This system of accreditation began to change in the early 1950s when Congress limited federal aid under the G.I. Bill to students attending institutions accredited by agencies approved by the federal government after its own systematic review, approval and oversight – when Washington, in effect, began to accredit the accreditors.
This shift abruptly endowed “approved” accrediting associations with new powers. As federal grants and student aid increased over the years, colleges grew ever more dependent on federal funding and those few accrediting agencies that assured access to it. As student funding became ever more dependent upon federal involvement, the accrediting agencies gained ever more power over their members. Read More.