We have received a number of questions from members since the U.S. Department of Education published final regulations on accreditation on November 1, 2019. In particular, members are asking what the impacts will be of the Department's decision to no longer recognize the distinction between regional and national accreditation.
This is a bit complicated.
The fact that the primary accreditors of higher education institutions are called "regional" or "national" accrediting bodies suggests that the institutions they oversee are determined primarily by geography. While geography does play a significant role, it is hard to argue that regional and national accrediting bodies represent the same types of institutions. A number of the national accrediting bodies oversee institutions with specialized missions such as the Association for Biblical Higher Education or the Association of Theological Schools. In their comments published in the Federal Register, the Department notes that they apply the same standards for recognition to both national and regional accrediting agencies and take exception to states and institutions that differentiate regional and national accreditation in their transfer credit policies. They note that these policies "provide further evidence for the need to eliminate the artificial distinction between regional and national accreditation."
During the Negotiated Rulemaking, the Department sought to reclassify some regional accrediting agencies with broad geographic scope as national accrediting agencies but they failed to reach consensus. Instead, the Department will now align its regulatory definitions to the terminology used in the Higher Education Act that refers to all accrediting agencies recognized by the Secretary of Education as "nationally recognized." The Department will now require all accrediting agencies to list the states in which it performs accrediting activities. But, since the Department was unable to achieve a more proscriptive policy, it is our understanding that the regional accrediting agencies will continue to refer to themselves as "regional" but abide by the new requirements of listing the states in which they operate.
Since much of the efforts by the Department to make changes to the names of the accrediting agencies was based on the issue of credit transfer, it is worthwhile to remind our members of the Joint Statement on the Transfer and Award of Credit developed by AACRAO, ACE, and CHEA and revised in 2017. In the Joint Statement we recommend that institutions not make their determinations of the acceptance of transfer credit solely on the accreditation of the sending institution, but to look at issues of the quality of the work—for which accreditation can be a consideration—as well as the nature, comparability, and applicability of the work. AACRAO has also provided recommendations for developing sound transfer policies.