Federal Guidance to Accreditors Will Impact Institutions

Publication Number 89 March 20, 2020


We know that there are many challenges that CHEA members and other institutions need to address in dealing with Covid-19. Many of these – mounting extensive online education, making key decisions about grading and credits and deciding what to do about upcoming accreditation visits to campuses – all involve the need for information about what accrediting organizations can and cannot do at this time. This Update describes the recent federal guidance that provides a framework that federally recognized accrediting organizations are using to work with institutions and programs. Each accrediting organization, as you would expect, is addressing this situation based on its standards and policies. For information specific to your institution or program, it is best to contact the relevant accreditor.  Please click here for a list of all CHEA- and USDE-recognized accrediting organizations, with links to their homepages.

On March 17, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) Office of Postsecondary Education issued a document titled Information for Accrediting Agencies Regarding Temporary Flexibilities Provided to Coronavirus Impacted Institutions or Accrediting Agencies. The guidance document, which suspends some federal regulations due to COVID-19 disruption to campuses and travel, is intended to provide both institutions and accreditors with flexibility regarding accrediting visits and for distance education, designed to save institutions time in seeking approvals and reduce costs so that students can be protected and assisted as institutions grapple with COVID-19 and its impact on higher education. 

USDEThe guidance document followed a USDE letter sent on March 5, 2020 providing broad approval to institutions to use online technologies to accommodate students on a temporary basis without going through the regular USDE approval process. USDE is also permitting accreditors to waive their distance education review requirements for institutions working to accommodate students whose enrollment is otherwise interrupted as a result of COVID-19. 

In issuing the guidance, USDE stated that this additional flexibility should be viewed as “a unique and temporary departure from the Department’s accreditation agency requirements.”  


The March 17, 2020 guidance document states that accreditors can perform virtual site visits, which must be interactive, for institutions as long as the accreditor follows up with an onsite visit in a reasonable amount of time. Accreditors can extend the accreditation of a college that is up for renewal or facing the loss of accreditation if the accreditor cannot perform a necessary site visit. Accreditors may make policy changes to accommodate these actions with commission approval and without public comment and a vote of the membership.  

USDE's guidance states that:

  • USDE has determined that it is reasonable and prudent to permit on a temporary basis, accrediting agencies to perform virtual site visits during this period even if their existing procedures do not provide for virtual visits. If agencies implement virtual visits, they should follow-up with in-person visits to meet the statutory and regulatory requirements to perform regular on-site inspections (though not necessarily a full peer-review site visit). Virtual site visits should rely on an engaged, interactive format (e.g., telephonic meetings, video conference calls, and the like), rather than solely document reviews.
  • USDE is also offering accrediting agencies the discretion to extend the term of accreditation, for a reasonable period of time during the COVID-19 interruption. Accreditors may provide a good cause extension to institutions on a show-cause order or probation if the agency is unable to perform a required site visit or hold a hearing with representatives of the institution. This includes providing an additional good cause extension to an institution or program that has otherwise already been provided with the agency’s maximum allowable good cause extensions. The Department expects each agency to resume normal practices as soon as reasonably possible after the COVID-19 interruption has ended.
  • Agencies should publish on their websites a decision to use the temporary flexibilities and include in its records the name of the school, a description of the waiver or extension, an explanation of the basis for granting the waiver or extension, the date on which the agency granted the waiver or extension, and a description of the suspended activity resulting from the waiver or extension.


The USDE March 5, 2020 letter stated:

  • USDE is providing broad approval to institutions to use online technologies to accommodate students on a temporary basis, without going through the regular USDE approval process for the use or expansion of distance learning programs. This flexibility only applies to a program during a payment period that overlaps the date of this electronic announcement or the following payment period.
  • USDE is also permitting accreditors to waive their distance education review requirements for institutions working to accommodate students whose enrollment is otherwise interrupted as a result of COVID-19. USDE is limiting that permission to distance learning opportunities developed for the purpose of serving students who were already in attendance, but whose attendance was interrupted by COVID-19. The flexibility is not available for clock-hour courses that lead to licensure if the licensure body will not accept distance learning courses.
  • For Title IV purposes, USDE says that distance learning does not require the use of sophisticated learning management systems or online platforms, though accreditors may have additional standards included in their review of distance learning programs. Accreditors may waive those standards for schools implementing distance learning programs solely for the purpose of allowing currently enrolled students, including in cases where students began attendance in classes offered in a brick-and-mortar setting to complete a term that is interrupted by COVID-19 closures. In these cases, USDE will accept the accreditation and state authorization of the institution for the programs in which those students were enrolled prior to the interruption due to COVID-19.
  • Institutions may also enter into temporary consortium agreements with other institutions so that students can complete courses at other institutions but be awarded credit by their home institution. In addition, in instances where accrediting agencies require students to complete a final number or percentage of credits in residence at the institution, accrediting agencies may waive that requirement for students impacted by COVID-19 without objection from USDE.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) will follow this issue closely and will keep member institutions and the accreditation community informed on any developments.