The Puppet Masters of Decatur

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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.

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38 responses to “The Puppet Masters of Decatur

  1. Mr. Fawell obviously does not go far enough in his elitism.

    Imagine, The University of Virginia being accredited by the very same group that also judges 800 other schools, many of them lesser ones, perhaps Virginia Tech, Washington & Lee, the College of William & Mary, Duke, Davidson, Emory, and the University of the South.


    Of course Hos should have their own special accreditation agency, but why not go further? Imagine:

    A special DMV that grants Woos driver’s licenses. They wouldn’t even need to take a written or driving test, just sign a statement. All Woos live by The Honor Code so we know they’d be OK.

    Special mortgage companies that give Hoos low rate loans. They deserve it, they are elite and those $7 million Albemarle County estates advertised in the alumni magazine can get a little pricey.

    Big discounts on Hoo paraphernalia like those orange ties and those Southern gentlemen straw hats with the “V” bands that go just right with tailgate football parties.

    No more federal education loans. They just attract riff-raff and make the student body the “wrong kind of people” such as NOVA ethnics.

  2. Well, I congratulate Reed on a much better researched article with less supposition and more facts. Kudos!

    BUT …(there is always a but…. 🙂 )

    I do question the Federal loan limitation.

    there are way more than 800 schools in the country including one’s like Phoenix and are all of them required to be accredited also in order to qualify for student loans?

    surely there are schools that offer loans that are not “accredited”, no?

    Right now – the govt is struggling with some businesses who are claiming to be schools that are more than happy to take a students money that he got as a Federal loan. The military is concerned with this also with GI benefits.

    it would seem that an easy way to put the kabash on these questionable schools would be to throw the ole “accreditation” deal at them.

    so Reed… more research!


    thanks for the article.. it did advance the issue.

  3. I did find this site:

    if you navigate through it for different kinds of loans for Va – a bunch of schools, even beyond the traditional 4-year schools are eligible.

    So my question is – do all of these schools have to meet the same accreditation standards in order to qualify for Federal loans?

  4. Yes, I believe all Federal Stafford loans require that the student to attend an institution accredited by a federally approved accreditation agency.

    It this be correct, then all students of all 800 members of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (Commission of Colleges) are able to participate equally in the program, given their schools federally approved accreditation, subject to their meeting all the other standard requirements.

    Conversely, if their school was not so accredited Federally, whether their school be Harvard or whatever, that student would not qualify. Hence federal accreditation is essential for the vast majority of institutions.

  5. Because federally approved accreditation is rarely lost relative to the difficulty encountered by a start-up institution seeking accreditation through membership in a regional accrediting Association, such start ups not infrequently buy an existing institution principally for accreditation.

    Accreditation is a complex, paradoxical, and ofttimes obscure subject. Motivations, objectives, rationales, outcomes, and consequences behind the systems in place are difficult to unravel. Its depths are largely unexplored.

  6. Reed – if you check the link I provided you -you’ll see a huge variety of schools including for-profit that are eligible for federal student loans.

    no where on that page does it say that accreditation of any kind is required.

    for instance, pick the online category and you’ll see Devry and Strayer.

    or pick Virginia and you’ll see the Staunton School of Cosmetology and a dozen Strayer locations or “Americans Computer Source”.

    I doubt seriously that many of these are accredited 4-year institutions but they all qualify for Federal loans ….

    so it appears that accreditation alone is not the sole determining factor.

    something else is involved…

    have you checked that link?

  7. Larry – I’m rather confident that these institutions are Federally accredited if their students receive Federal grants and loans. And, if not by Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (Commission on Colleges) (acscoc), then by one of the other ten federally approved agencies (or other special accreditation agencies), mentioned in above article.

    Recall also that UVa’s accreditation agency accredits Junior Colleges and Technical schools as well as 4 year colleges, and also universities. So, for example, check out Alamance Community College website at:

    Note its History tab – sacscoc first accredited Alamance in 1969 (and reconfirmed it in 2003) – note Alamance’s 1969 activities and facilities.

    Also check membership directory at Note variety of schools federally accredited by sacscoc in addition to UVa.

  8. Okay – so UVA can be accredited by others if they choose?

    It would seem to me that if schools like Devry and Strayer can get accredited .. so could UVA since UVA standards are probably a lot tougher.

    I’m not seeing the connection here between UVA not getting accreditation from ONE accrediting organization and losing Federal loans if far lesser schools are accredited and get certified for Federal Loans.

    Just for giggles and grins, I went to the Council of Higher Education Accrediting Database and put in Strayer and I got back

    The Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (MSA)

    which accredits a crap load of colleges and universities so I’m assuming that UVA has a lot of options in their current accreditation
    no longer “works”.

    There are other organizations that would accredit them and allow them to still receive Federal loans, right?


  9. so this statement:

    ” The answer is simple: Without SACSCC accreditation, University of Virginia students are no longer eligible to receive federal student loans. ”

    does not mean that they cannot get accredited by other organizations.


    It was and is hard to believe that UVA has no options for accreditation other than SACSCC.

  10. Here’s what I am struck by also. That so many lesser ” schools”, including some that are considered less than stellar in academic rigor will gladly take your money and don’t care if you borrowed from the Feds or not – and the Feds ..apparently are willing to accept some organizations accreditation standards for these de-facto diploma mills.

    For UVA, I’m suspecting that it’s a PARTICULAR accreditor that they value RATHER than the fact that they cannot get ANY accreditation and as a consequence lose their ability to receive Federal Loans.

    I mean if Strayer, and Devry, and even the Phoenix Institute of Herbal Medicine and Acupuncture in Arizona can be accredited to receive Federal loans.. this obviously is not the end of UVA for lack of accreditation.

    They may highly value one over the others, but it’s not a real threat to their ability to get Federal funding.

  11. Oh.. and I learned that in addition to “Diploma Mills” there are:

    “Accreditation Mills”

    If the answers to many of these questions are “yes,” the operation under consideration may
    be a “mill”:
    • Does the operation allow accredited status to be purchased?
    • Does the operation publish lists of institutions or programs they claim to have accredited
    without institutions and programs knowing that they are listed or have been accredited?
    • Are high fees for accreditation required as compared to average fees from accrediting
    • Does the operation claim that it is recognized (by, e.g., USDE or CHEA) when it is not?
    • Are few if any standards for quality published by the operation?
    • Is a very short period of time required to achieve accredited status?
    • Are accreditation reviews routinely confined to submitting documents and do not include
    site visits or interviews of key personnel by the accrediting organization?
    • Is “permanent” accreditation granted without any requirement for subsequent periodic
    • Does the operation use organizational names similar to recognized accrediting
    • Does the operation make claims in its publications for which there is no evidence? now we know why the Feds are into the business of “recognizing” accreditation organizations but it’s obvious from the list of schools that the Feds will give money to that it’s not a particularly high bar.

    I’m starting to think that the actual deal here is that UVA highly prizes the SACSCC accreditation and would hate to lose it but if
    they do or if they choose to – they can likely find a number of others to accredit and maintain their ability to receive Federal loans.

    do you agree with all of this?

  12. No, not in the least, but keep digging, Larry –

    It’d take time, but we’ll get to the bottom of it, hopefully.

  13. so you DON’T agree that UVA has other accreditation paths?

  14. Likely because Strayer was founded and is headquartered in DC – part of mid-Atlantic accreditation region.

  15. I still don’t get the point of these postings on accreditation. U.Va. has become the national flashpoint for some very serious problems facing higher education and we spent our time screwing around with this peanut vendor issue of whether the Southern Association is worthy of accrediting them.

    Once you scrape away the arrogance and sense of entitlement covering these postings, there’s no real issue here.

  16. it did get down into the weeds… I question the assertion that UVA has only one way to get accreditation and that the loss of that means the the loss of Federal loans for students.

    Accreditation is a little understood process that .. I learned a few things about as a result of Reed’s blog post (though I don’t agree with his premise – that it’s wrong for accreditation organizations to be able to affect the operation of UVA).

    But I was surprised to learn that the accreditors were non-govt but had to be approved by the govt in their roles as it pertained to the availability of govt or govt-sponsored loans to students.

    but then I also realized that the “high bar” of accreditation for UVA is not the same bar that applies to institutions like Phoenix or Devry or Strayer… all of who also manage to get accredited and thus able to be the recipients of the same Federal loans for students that UVA depends on.

    Some of these “for-profit” education institutions have been accused of charging way more for their services than they are worth to the student later as qualifications for a job so it seemed a bit ironic that UVA could be denied access to those same Federal funds, not because they have crummy academic programs.. compared to these for-profit companies…. but because of “governance” issues.

    So .. UVA …. CAN be held accountable for the BOV fiasco, eh?

    Reeds primary complaint seems to be that the method of accountability is coming from a separate independent entity and what UVA does or does not do is none of their business.

    this is what I think I hear Reed saying. I’m sure he’ll correct me if
    I got it wrong.

  17. The issue is that the accreditation agency that accredits UVa is overstepping its bounds by making threats regarding the practices of the Board of Visitors.

    The relationship between the President of UVa and the Board of Visitors should have nothing to do with UVa’s accreditation.

    The accreditation agency is playing politics and it should be reformed or dropped as the accreditation agency.

  18. Doesn’t UVA have the ability to drop them themselves and use a different accreditation agency?

  19. larryg —

    Yes, every Title-IV-eligible institution must be accredited by a federally-recognized accreditor. These accreditors serve as the gatekeepers to Title IV funds. There are regional accreditors and national accreditors. The former tend to accredit non-profit public, non-profit private, and some “comprehensive” for-profit institutions. The latter tend to accredit vocational (i.e. career) or occasionally mission-specific (e.g. religious, etc.) institutions.

    Regional accreditation is geographic in nature. So, an institution has only one option when it comes to regional accreditation. National accreditation tends to be mission specific, with very few (if any) public institutions accredited by such agencies. I’m not aware of any national accrediting agency that would be relevant to a research institution like U.Va. (But, never say never.)

    If you want to read a document that discusses some of the current thoughts/controversies surrounding the current accreditation regime, try this:

    (There are also specialized accreditors, which accredit programs, not institutions. These are generally independent of the Title IV regime and are concerned with professional recognition — engineering, law, medicine, etc..)

  20. thank you K.T. This is consistent with other references I have found.

    the question still is – is there only ONE option for UVA to get accredited?

    I’ve not seen that yet.

    What I HAVE seen is that it is NOT just ONE accreditation agency for UVA. There are a bunch.. many specific to UVAs specific schools and colleges.

    so the plot thickens – is there one umbrella accreditation for all of UVA in addition to the sub-accreditations and if that single umbrella accreditation the ONLY option for UVA?

  21. K. T. is quite right. Regional accreditation is the primary game here. For further insight into that aspect, take a look at – It’s a good starting point.

    And Don’s running straight and true, as usual.

    I’d had weekend house guests to attend to all weekend. That will continue thought Tuesday morning, hence my cryptic replies, Larry.

    Contrary to first impression, it’s all quite fascinating, this accreditation business, I suggest. Who knows, maybe even Peter will learn something.

  22. yep.. I’ve seen that … what’s harder is to see all the universities and colleges in Va and who accredits them.

    If we accept what Reed is suggesting – there is but one accreditor and it does accredit all Va 2 and 4yr institutions and there are no other options.

    so maybe there is something rotten in Denmark, eh?

  23. Reed, yes I saw that. My question is – is this every 2 and 4yr college in Virginia?


  24. almost.. I count about 7o on the SACS list and about 75 on wiki.

    okay.. so I do hereby admit that Reed got the part right about the only option.

    • Of the publics and “established privates” on the Wikipedia list not accredited by SACS:

      * Appalachian School of Law — can be accredited by the ABA (a specialized accreditor) since it only offers law degrees
      * GWU — home base of Washington D.C. and is, therefore, accredited by Middle States (another regional accreditor, like SACS)
      * National College — a national private institution (i.e. locations across the U.S.), accredited by American Council of Independent (i.e. private) Colleges and Schools (a national accreditor), that does not offer degrees above the master’s level
      * Statford University — similar to National College
      * Union Presbyterian — theological institution accredited by Association of Theological School (national accreditor)
      * University of Management & Technology — online institution accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council (national accreditor)

  25. I YIELD to K.T. due diligence. I though about going through the two lists but realized then I’d probably have to find out for each difference how they were accredited and truth be known, I was too lazy.

    thank you K.T.

    Now.. can I ask if you have an opinion on the UVA kerfuffle?

  26. Not so much of an opinion on the kerfuffle itself. I’m willing to bet what we see in the media is only 1% of the story. So, it’s hard to make an informed judgment from the outside.

    For better or for worse, this is the system in place and, under it, SACS has the authority to dig as deep as it desires until it gets the answers it wants. Accreditation is voluntary, yet when the federal government requires it as a condition of access to Title IV and other federal education funding, “voluntary” takes on new meaning. It’s like transportation funding, Medicaid, and any other rules-based funding regime. Follow the rules or be locked out of the cash bonanza.

    The accreditation world is an interesting case though in that the accreditation agencies serve as an intermediary between the regulator (the federal government) and the regulated (institutions). I imagine someday the federal government will simply take on the accreditation role itself a la the SEC and corporations. Self-regulation is an increasingly quaint concept in this day and age…

    • And so once the Federal government takes on the task of regulating our colleges and universities, what then?

      • It certainly would be difficult to abolish the Department of Education, huh?

        • well I think there are a number in Congress who would sign on to that idea but not near enough to prevail.

          but the issue is, regardless of which cabinet was involved (or not) is 1. should the govt be providing student loans and 2. if they do, wouldn’t we all want some kind of standards to assure level of assurance that the money is actually only spent on the purposes intended?

          so you’d have some kind of a checklist to assure that the school was a real school, legitimately involved in providing education, and well managed so that it was a sustainable enterprise…. blah blah blah

          so would we want even more govt bureaucrats doing that?

          so the idea to have an approved list of accreditors saves the govt (and taxpayers) money , right?

  27. AH – the $64 question!

    so a question back at ya:

    Do you think if the govt gives taxpayer money to students and colleges it ought to have regulations to make sure it gets spent right?

    Bonus Question: Do you think the Govt should be in the student loan business to start with?

    this could be a place to start when making spending cuts to reach a balanced budget….


    then students and colleges could make their own decisions without any pesky “interference” from the Govt or accreditors?

    what do you think?

    I say the reason why UVA and other colleges keep going up in costs higher than inflation is because of these “easy” loans. As long as the govt gives these loans places like UVA are going to suck them up like nectar and increase their bloat.

    what say you?

    • Here! Here! I agree with you on that one, Larry.

    • I can think of far better things for the federal government to be spending money on.

      I can think of far worse things for the federal government to be spending money on.

      There is ample economic literature indicating that subsidies are a contributor to price increases.

      • I don’t want to go off the deep end here and agree 100% with Jim’s basic thesis about what happens when the govt gives away money – even for a stated ‘good purpose’ but I’m persuaded that in the case of these loans – they have fostered a system of public and private schools that have become very adept at feasting off of the money.

        but the argument that will follow is that these loans are how those who are not wealthy can afford college.

        I would counter that many are not interested in just a college education because there are LOTS of simple and small good colleges from which to get a good education. What people want is the money it takes to go to UVA or Va Tech or UNC… etc., 2x, 3x, 4x and up.

        that’s too much middle class subsidy in my view.

        it ought to be capped at what can be obtained at the smaller but good schools and if someone wants to go to a name brand school then fine – shell out the money to go with your basic loan.

        the problem is with all of these programs is they start out minimally for a “good purpose” and then they run amok with help from Congress.

      • Here’s the problem. this is from armed services folks perspective but I’m AGOG that an enlisted man in the Armed Services has accumulated $60,000 in debt for education and the interest alone is going to take it to 81K.

        Now the article is all about figuring out how to reduce the interest but to me the bigger issue is how in the hell can someone start out in life looking for a job when they are already deep in debt?

        I understand the pressures they are under but this is totally irrational and the government is enabling it with these uncapped loans and the Universities and Colleges are feasting on this.

        this is totally unsustainable – for the govt and for the people taking on these enormous loans.

        Many of these folks are already on the edge between middle class and lower.. they’re on the cusp of falling into a financial status of almost permanent debt for much of their life before they retire.

        this is totally bizarre … some how the term “GI BILL” has entered a new realm. It used to be a modest stipend to get folks coming out of the armed services a starter home and some occupational training so transition to jobs in the economy.

        So the govt wants to assure that the money is spent “wisely” so they require an accreditation regime to “protect” the govt investment of 81K for a soldier leaving the armed services.

        this is bizarre.

        the accreditation angle is a flea on a dog’s butt compared to the fact that we have young people starting out in life with this much debt.

  28. waiting on Reed … should we have the Feds funding student loans … and strings attached?

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