Higher Learning Commission may be the next regional accreditor to expand service area

Dive Brief:

  • The Higher Learning Commission is weighing whether to drop its historical regional boundaries and expand its accreditation service area to the entire U.S.
  • Its announcement follows similar moves by at least three other accreditors in response to new regulations from the U.S. Department of Education.
  • As part of the change, HLC is considering an expedited review process, which could help colleges justify a move, one accreditation expert said.

Dive Insight:

HLC would join at least three other regional accreditors in formally expanding their service areas in light of federal regulations that went into effect last summer eliminating their geographic boundaries. The oversight provided by the seven regional accreditors is considered the premier form of accreditation in the U.S.  

WASC Senior College and University Commission, which has historically accredited colleges in the Western U.S., was the first to announce it was dropping its regional boundaries. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education, long focused on the mid-Atlantic states, followed several months later. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities also recently did the same

HLC has the largest service area of the regional accreditors, spanning the Great Lakes region and central U.S.

Its president, Barbara Gellman-Danley, said the regulatory change and its completion of a new strategic plan moved the accreditor into a phase of business development, spurring the decision. 

HLC is also considering an accelerated approval process for qualifying schools, allowing them to skip the candidacy status period. Institutions can’t have received a negative action such as a sanction or show-cause order with its current accreditor for at least a decade, among other criteria.

Other accreditors to drop regional boundaries offer similar flexibility.

NWCCU also allows some schools to skip the candidacy period, its president, Sonny Ramaswamy, said in an email. 

Middle States doesn’t have an accelerated process that allows applicants to skip candidacy, but recent policy changes give schools that “demonstrate readiness for initial accreditation the ability to move through the process quicker,” a spokesperson for the accreditor said in an email.

Candidacy is not required under WSCUC’s policy, said its president, Jamienne Studley. The path to WSCUC accreditation is “as swift as an institution’s situation warrants,” Studley said. 

Although the department’s regulatory change gives colleges more options, critics worry it enables them to seek a new accreditor if they can’t meet the standards of their current one, eroding the quality of oversight.

Antoinette Flores, acting vice president of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, echoed these concerns. While “it’s a good sign” that HLC is applying its standards equally and putting limitations on institutions as part of the approval process, “the risk of institutions accreditation shopping and a devaluing of quality oversight remains,” Flores wrote in an email. 

The long-term effects of accreditors’ boundary shifting will depend in part on the competitive pressures they face as a result, said Christopher Burnett, a postdoctoral fellow in education leadership and policy studies at the University of Houston, who studies accreditation. For example, losing members may cause an accreditor to lower its standards, while others might find success with a new niche that improves the agency’s position.

Because changing accreditors can be a logistical burden for colleges, however, “the value to institutions will need to be high,” Burnett wrote in an email, adding that an accelerated review process may reduce that burden. 

HLC’s decision is still subject to internal approvals and a member comment period. The accreditor on Thursday said its trustee board approved changes to its bylaws and policies. A final vote on the changes will happen during its June board meeting.

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