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Accreditation, Tenure, and Transparency: Innovative Higher Education Policies from Florida’s 2022 Legislative Session

Promising, first-of-its-kind legislation from Florida Senators Manny Diaz and Ray Wesley Rodrigues became law this spring. The most innovative provisions in SB 7044 tackle higher education’s institutionalized accreditation system, while others address tenure, course information, and financial transparency.

The legislation took effect on July 1. With emerging data on student outcomes and institutional activity in the coming years, Florida may provide proof of concept on the new ideas in the reform package.

While waiting for results from SB 7044, however, Florida should continue its work by aligning incentive structures for higher education institutions with state priorities such as economic growth and residents’ economic mobility. The state funding that flows to district postsecondary vocational programs, the Florida College System, and the State University System of Florida should depend on successful student outcomes.

Below is a summary and analysis of the key components of this new law.

SB 7044: Accreditation, Tenure, and Transparency

1. Public institutions must seek a new accreditor every cycle.

For American colleges and universities, the stamp of approval from federally recognized accreditors unlocks federal financial aid for students such as Pell grants and subsidized loans. Traditionally, colleges’ accreditation came from one of seven regional accreditors. But to induce competition in the sector, new federal rules allow regional accreditors to serve colleges outside of former geographical bounds.

This change allowed the Florida legislature to require public colleges and universities to switch accreditors each accreditation cycle. Thus, in the coming years, Florida’s institutions must seek accreditation outside of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS). 

Accreditors typically reaffirm a college’s accreditation on eight- to ten-year cycles, with a midpoint review in between. The new law will now require colleges to seek accreditation from a new accreditor in the year following midpoint review and reaffirmation. If a college does not obtain candidacy with the new accreditor before the next reaffirmation or midpoint review, they may stay with their current accreditor for that cycle but must seek new accreditation again the following cycle. The bill exempts programs with specific accreditation requirements, such as law or medical schools, from this provision.

Some critics of this new requirement argue that switching accreditors every five years will be a bureaucratic burden for colleges, taking additional staff time and costing more than $10,000 in additional fees per institution per cycle. They fear this will contribute to rising tuition by adding to colleges’ already large administrative overhead.

Others, however, say that this cost will be well worth the consequent benefit. Dr. Siri Terjesen, an Associate Dean at Florida Atlantic University’s College of Business, says “paying the $10,000 fee is a drop in the bucket compared to other regulations’ costs, both direct and indirect.” And ultimately, Dr. Terjesen believes, that if all of Florida’s colleges remain with SACS, “then we’re saying it’s okay to have a monopoly in this industry, but we know that industries that are basically monopolies or oligopolies tend to offer lower quality services…and if there are limited accrediting agencies, then we might prevent new educational entities from entering.”

SACS currently accredits all 28 colleges in the Florida College System and all 12 universities in the State University System of Florida. Yet, the association has a history of not ensuring quality for students. It accredits nearly fifty colleges that have on-time graduation rates of less than 20 percent and still receive federal student aid. It also didn’t notice that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill gave student-athletes academic credit for fake courses for nearly two decades.

Yet SACS continues to eagerly involve itself in governance and political issues in the state, including incidents in the past year with the University of Florida and Florida State University. SACS also threatened to pull accreditation twice in 2013 if the Florida legislature and then-Governor Rick Scott didn’t adhere to their demands.

A recent report found that only one percent of actions taken by the seven large regional accreditors relate to student outcomes. It also found that accreditors are no more likely to discipline colleges with low graduation rates, low student earnings, or high student loan default rates than they are to discipline colleges with average performance on these measures. 

Supporters of the bill hope that introducing competition into the accreditation space will improve quality assurance practices as accreditors vie for spots on the approved list from the Board of Governors and the State Board of Education. As one of SB 7044’s sponsors, Sen. Diaz, stated, “a different perspective from a different regional accreditor would be helpful to our universities.” 

2. Public institutions can sue accreditors when they are “negatively impacted by retaliatory action.”

Another accreditation-related provision in the bill provides a cause of action for any postsecondary institution receiving state funds that are “negatively impacted by a retaliatory action” from its accreditor.

While critics of this provision say that it is imprecise, with the terms “negative impact” and “retaliatory action” undefined in the bill, state legislators and the Board of Governors are fed up with SACS asserting its will over political decisions relating to the state’s public higher education institutions.

Some also worry that the threat of a lawsuit from member institutions may dissuade accreditors from other regions from accrediting Florida’s public institutions. But with the accreditation provisions in the bill set to expire in 2032, upcoming student outcomes data will give insight into the validity of these concerns. Florida legislators know that the status quo isn’t working to ensure education quality for students, and they are the first state to step up and codify major changes to accreditation.

3. Tenured faculty at public universities must undergo a “comprehensive post-tenure review” every five years.

The Board of Governors of the State University System of Florida will oversee a new review process for tenured faculty. The review must include “accomplishments and productivity; assigned duties in research, teaching and service; performance metrics, evaluations and ratings; and recognition and compensation considerations, as well as improvement plans and consequences for underperformance.”

Faculty at the university system say that they already undergo extensive review processes by their peers and employers, both before and after tenure. Gov. Ron DeSantis and Speaker Chris Sprowls, however, feel that the additional review will curb political indoctrination in the classroom. Just as quality assurance from a new accreditor may elucidate issues that have previously been overlooked in Florida’s institutions, a secondary review process outside the institution may identify additional opportunities for faculty improvement.

4. Information on course materials and student fees at public institutions will be more accessible, and course credits will transfer more easily between public institutions.

Public institutions will need to make all required public information about courses and course materials searchable online and downloadable for at least 5 years. They will also need to post syllabi for all general education core courses online.

As with curriculum transparency in K-12 schools, the intent of the requirement is to allow students, parents, and the public to view how public and private dollars are spent at public colleges. Critics of the provision, however, argue that assigning a text is not an endorsement of a text. In areas such as political theory or philosophy, for example, students typically read opposing texts back to back. But, on the other hand, the transparency requirements in this provision will give interested parties more access to necessary contextual information about what is taught in a course or field of study.

Colleges will also be required to “prominently post” all tuition and fees, as well as proposed increases, in an easily accessible manner, and email all enrolled students to notify them of any proposed changes. The bill also requires any proposal to increase tuition or fees to have its necessity justified, be pre-allocated to specific uses, and gain approval by a supermajority of trustees or the equivalent. 

This may counteract a principal reason for rising tuition: administrative bloat. According to Preston Cooper of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, “since 2003, only one-third of the increase in colleges’ and universities’ core expenditures has gone to spending on instruction. Almost all the rest has fed the growth of the vast administrative apparatus of these institutions.” And Purdue University’s success in not raising tuition for ten years during Mitch Daniels’ presidency shows schools can contain costs and save billions for students without sacrificing quality education.

Finally, the bill includes provisions to standardize the statewide course numbering system and require that transfer credits be applied to general education core requirements before electives. This policy will help transfer students move through their studies at a more efficient pace.

Next Steps: Improving Performance Funding

An improved performance funding formula would allow Florida to continue to lead in higher education. Performance funding provides a financial incentive for colleges and universities to achieve better outcomes with innovative solutions and known best practices. Higher education performance funding usually includes incentives for improved academic success measures, such as retention or graduation rates, or improved career success measures, such as job placement or graduate earnings.

Florida already has performance funding in place for its technical colleges, community colleges, and university system. A stronger emphasis on workforce outcomes, however, could help increase economic opportunity for Florida’s students to an even larger extent by encouraging institutions to invest more heavily in the factors that lead to tangible student success post-graduation.

In the State University System of Florida, ten measures determine the amount of performance funding each university receives. Of these ten performance measures, only two focus on workforce outcomes (job placement and median graduate earnings). Overall, the state universities’ performance funding amounts to about 25 percent of their total state funding, though this proportion isn’t set in state statute (Section 1001.92). By increasing the share of state funding that is reliant on students’ workforce outcomes, Florida would encourage its public universities to make student success a higher priority.

The state recently moved more technical and community college funding in this direction. Last year’s HB 1507 (Rep. Clay Yarborough and Rep. Lauren Melo) shifted performance funding for industry-based certificates (IBCs) from completion metrics to job placement and wage metrics. When the new formula takes effect, colleges will get a bonus not if students complete certificates, but if students complete workforce-relevant certificates that give them a competitive edge in the job market and translate into higher earnings.

In 2014, Texas implemented a similar idea by tying the state funding for its technical college system (Texas State Technical College, or TSTC) directly to student wages. This means that when their students earn more, TSTC earns more state funding. As Chancellor Mike Reeser describes it, TSTC is the “only self-funded public college,” since its state funding is a percentage of what past graduates have already paid in additional taxes.

The model clearly works. Combined graduate wages have increased more than 117 percent since 2014 and TSTC’s state funding has increased more than 50 percent ($50 million) over 10 years. Extra state funding allows TSTC to further invest in innovative instructive methods for their students. For instance, instructors now use augmented and virtual reality training in many programs, such as architectural design, engineering graphics, registered nursing, and chemical technology.

TSTC’s model clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of aligning institutions’ incentives with student and state goals. Florida has made significant strides down this path. Now it is time to add workforce accountability measures to general operations funding for technical and community colleges instead of simply relegating those measures to bonus funding for IBCs. With their innovative new accountability measures for accreditation, tenure, curriculum transparency, and financial transparency, Florida should look to reform its funding formulas as the next step in making its higher education institutions work better for students.