The Puppet Masters of Decatur

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.

When established in 1980, the Department of Education (DOE) set up an 18-member national advisory and a staff to run its accreditation approval program. DOE used these tools to set more rigorous standards for accrediting organizations. Groups that applied for accreditation powers had to document at least two years of accreditation experience using detailed criteria and standard.

Regulatory hurdles largely cut accreditation start-ups out of the market, protected long-established players and winnowed down the number of approved accrediting associations. Six regional groups now accredit most traditional non-profit colleges and universities in the nation. Ten national agencies (including four faith-based) also have been approved, dealing mostly with private, for-profit institutions, including technical schools. Additional agencies handle specialty areas such as graduate business, medicine, law and architecture.                 

As a consequence of federal involvement:

•       Given the dramatic increase in tuition costs and the growing share of federal aid, the vast majority of U.S. institutions of higher learning cannot survive without federally approved accreditation.

•       Federally approved accreditation is now nearly universal, including even elite universities such as Harvard and state flagship universities such as the University of Virginia. The vast majority of accredited schools are small, local institutions; very few approach the size or reputation of the University of Virginia.

•       Federally approved accrediting organizations, including the SACSCC, do not rank schools by quality. Degrees earned from the University of Virginia enjoy the same rank as degrees from any association member. Thus, the Southern Commission’s accreditation signifies that its members meet a minimal standard that entitles a student to federal aid, little else.    

The governance system of the Commission gives the University of Virginia very little say in how the organization is run. Each of its 800 members has a single vote on a limited range of issues. Seventy-seven presidents and other senior university administrators comprise a Board of Trustees and also serve on a variety of powerful committees. A 13-member Executive Council acts as the Board of Trustees when the full Board is not in session. It appears that UVa is not represented on the Board, the Executive Council or any committee.  Despite annual dues that dwarf those of most other members, UVa’s influence appears de minimus.   

Federal regulations not only govern federal aid, they permeate the standards that the association imposes on its members. The accreditation process ranges broadly and deeply across the entire institution, prying into all facets of university life, from governance to bricks and mortar issues, from faculty decision making to student wellness and satisfaction, from the keeping of proper faculty committee minutes to the proper keeping of Board of Visitor minutes. Even nearly forgotten computer hard drives appear within the Commission’s reach.

The Federal and regional levels of oversight appear to work synergisticly, creating evolving standards and methods that reinforce one another and become increasingly complex, invasive, cumbersome and rigid. The Commission took 17 single-spaced pages to express “core” principles that had accrued over 113 years of regulation. Today, only 11 years later, the articulation of core principles requires 40 single-spaced pages. The Commission needs another 260 documents to explain and interpret its powers, processes and sanctions, and the obligations of its members.

The mandates grow annually. They’ve exploded since 2006, the year that the Commission’s president, a former Secretary of Education of Virginia, took control.


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