A recent Inside Higher Ed article (IHE) on the college accreditor, SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) reveals—albeit, unintentionally—a great deal about the disconnect between the higher-education establishment and the rest of the country. Half puff-piece, half press coverage, the article anguishes over “the political trials of a Southern accreditor,” and especially its longtime president, Belle Wheelan.
The only thing the article’s emphasis on “political trials” misses is the one thing that matters: Of all the seven major accrediting bodies, SACS has the worst graduate debt-to-earnings ratios (which is the average amount of debt each college and individual program costs a student versus the average income graduates receive, i.e., the student’s and their parents’ return on their investment). National surveys have been informing us for years that a sizable majority “of 14- to 23-year-old students want a degree to provide financial security, ranking it above all else.” This is why states like mine (Texas) as well as Florida and Tennessee, are desperate to find an accreditor that actually has a good record of educating students for jobs at decent wages.
If you didn’t know about SACS’s failure at its core mission—which is, as SACS’s website puts it, “the improvement of education in the South”—you won’t find it in the IHE piece. Instead, it argues that “one reason SACS has fallen under attack” is that “the 11 states in its region include some of the most deeply conservative in the country, including Texas, Tennessee and Florida.”
So, concern over our kids’ earning potential once they graduate is merely a “deeply conservative” agenda item? Do liberal parents outside the South agree? They don’t, and the data prove it: New polling from the University of Chicago’s NORC research center finds that more than half (56%) of Americans today see college “as a bad investment.”
Those who attend schools currently under SACS have an even stronger basis for such skepticism. Consider the results of a study of college accreditors with regard to debt-to-earnings ratios. As my Texas Public Policy Foundation colleague, economist Andrew Gillen, recounts in his recent study of accreditation, up until recently, there was a dearth of outcomes metrics regarding workforce readiness, causing the accreditation system to be based, not on outcomes, but primarily on inputs.
However, starting in 2019, the U.S. Department of Education began releasing the median earnings of graduates by college and major, following on the Obama administration’s College Scorecard. Using these newly available debt-to-earnings ratios, Dr. Gillen’s study discloses when an accreditor has a higher share of failing programs than its share of all programs in the country, that is, when it is underperforming relative to other accreditors. For example, “if an accreditor accredits 15% of all bachelor’s degree programs but accounts for 25% of failing programs in the country, then the accreditor is underperforming,” writes Gillen.
Using this metric, Gillen finds that the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits 42% of all associate degree programs, accounts for only 30% of failing programs. This Gillen labels “overperforming.”
For bachelor’s degrees, Gillen finds one overperformer and one underperformer that stand out. The Higher Learning Commission again overperforms, accounting for 36% of all bachelor’s degree programs, but only 27% of failing programs. SACS stands out for poor performance, because it accredits 25% of all bachelor’s degree programs but accounts for 42% of failing programs.
Regarding master’s degrees, yet again, the Higher Learning Commission is the best accreditor, accounting for 32% of master’s degree programs but only 23% of failing programs.
Gillen’s study gives honorable mentions to the New England Commission of Higher Education and the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. While the lowest-scoring regional accreditor is SACS, Gillen finds that its results for graduate degrees do not raise any red flags; however, and most important for our purposes, SACS massively underperforms in the bachelor’s degree category, the most commonly earned credential.
Unless you think living under the worst-performing accreditor is deserved punishment for the crime of being a “deeply conservative” region, you might sympathize with the efforts of southern states to get SACS off their backs.
Believe it or not, before 2019, no school had the freedom to apply for accreditation to an accreditor deemed by the school to best fit the needs of its students. For Texas and ten other southern states, it was SACS or nothing among major accreditors.
All this changed in 2019, when the U.S. Department of Education effectively “nationalized” the regional accreditors, ending restriction-by-zip-code. Now, all schools anywhere in the country are free to apply to any of the seven major accreditors across the country.
Or are they? The IHE piece reminds us that “the Department of Education has warned that such mandates [specifically, Florida’s law requiring its schools regularly to change accreditors] could result in a loss of eligibility for federal financial aid. And some policy makers and higher ed leaders predict a retightening of accreditation restrictions as soon as this year. . ..” Why? So that accreditors like SACS can avoid “political trials,” because SACS and the IHE think parents’ alarm over college’s dwindling return on investment must be all just “politics.”
Is SACS confident that soon the Biden administration will repeal schools’ freedom to choose an accreditor that best fits the needs of their students? Apparently so, as this boast by Wheelan suggests: “Florida institutions are still my institutions. Until they’re no longer my institutions, we will continue to treat them just like we do all of our other members” (emphasis mine). –Meaning, we will continue to make them serve the whims of the poorest-performing accreditor in the country?
And about those being your institutions in Florida, President Wheelan, I thought the taxpayer-funded, public universities of Florida are governed by the state constitution and the elected leaders who represent the taxpayers. I thought they were Florida’s institutions, not yours.
I thought your job was, as your website states, “the improvement of education in the South.”
At that, SACS has failed.
So, rather than blame “politics,” perhaps SACS should spend more time on “the improvement of education.” In the process, it would end the fatal disconnect between itself and those it is tasked to serve.