A Review of U.S. Department of Education Final Accreditation Regulations

Publication Number 86 November 8, 2019

On November 1, 2019, the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) published final regulations on accreditation. Overall, these final rules reflect minor changes from the draft consensus language approved by USDE’s Negotiated Rulemaking Committee that met earlier this year (see Federal Update #77).

The revised regulations continue the emphasis on accountability that has been characterizing federal involvement in accreditation, as well as providing additional opportunity for accreditation to embrace innovation, along with some streamlining of federal recognition (the periodic review of accreditation). And, the regulations take effect as both the House of Representatives and the Senate are addressing a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the law that establishes a framework for the regulations. The House has introduced the College Affordability Act (see Federal Update #83). The Senate is still considering introduction of its own bill and, if the House passes its bill, will need to decide whether or not to take this up.

The revised regulations that address accountability are:

  • Increase expectations by USDE concerning student achievement through the collection and analysis of key data and indicators, including institution’s or program’s performance and measures of student achievement.  
  • Require more transparency on regional accreditor websites regarding the states in which the organizations operate.
  • Mandate institutional disclosure to accreditors of any law enforcement actions or prosecutions that lead to adverse action.
  • Protect students through enhanced institutional disclosure requirements about whether programs lead to licensure or qualification to sit for a licensing exam.

The revised regulations that address innovation are:

  • Provide more flexibility for innovation for institutions and accrediting organizations by encouraging accreditors to establish different methods of monitoring institutional success and provide opportunities for experimentation.
  • Open the door to student aid for non-institutional educational offerings from colleges and universities, including partnerships with alternative providers.
  • Provide a simpler path for new accrediting organizations to gain recognition to give priority to student needs and outcomes rather than traditional measurements.
  • Enable more dual enrollment opportunities through flexibility in standards allowing high school teachers in certain circumstances to teach these courses.

The revised regulations that ease the federal recognition review of accrediting organizations are:

  • Simplify substantive change provisions – accreditor review of major changes by institutions or programs – to require that fewer of these changes require a review.
  • Provide institutions additional amount of time to come into compliance with accreditor standards by extending deadlines for compliance.
  • Implement new timelines and reduce the number of documents required for recognition applications submitted by accrediting agencies.
  • Provide for accrediting organizations that are required to address minor concerns arising from an application for recognition to send a report rather than, as has been required, appearing before the National Advisory Committee.

Other revisions include:

  • Simplify the definition of state reciprocity agreements and permit states that join a reciprocity agreement to continue to apply their state laws and regulations, including consumer protection laws.
  • Encourage accreditors to take earlier action to require teach-out plans and to permit teach-out agreements before a school announces its closure.
  • Establish severability or independence of regulations from each other.
  • Require arbitration between institutions and accreditors of accreditation decisions prior to any litigation.
  • Extend Title IV aid for a 120-day teach out with the agreement of the accreditor and state agency and thus further helping students.

Most of the provisions in the final rule are scheduled to take effect on July 1, 2020.Four sections were effective November 1, 2019:600.2 (Definitions); 600.9 (State Authorization); 668.43 (Institutional information); and 668.50 (Severability - if one section of a rule is challenged, the rest of the rule is not affected). Most important for accreditation, the sections that modify the timeline that accrediting organizations are to follow to become federally recognized will be effective on July 1, 2021. This change provides more time for accrediting organizations to respond to issues raised by the Department in the course of the review. 

A significant feature of these changes is the Department’s decision to eliminate reference to “regional” accreditation, now describing regional accrediting organizations as “national” and requiring these accreditors to make public all the states or countries in which they are engaged in accrediting activity.

USDE has not yet published the proposed rules for distance education, as well as TEACH grants and the equitable treatment of faith-based institutions, all of which were part of the original consensus agreement. CHEA will keep CHEA institutional members and accreditation stakeholders informed as developments warrant.