DeSantis sues Biden, Department of Education over college accreditation agencies

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference in Tampa. (WJXT)

Gov. Ron DeSantis held a news conference Thursday at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa to announce that he and Attorney General Ashley Moody are filing a lawsuit against the Biden administration, the Department of Education and others to stop accrediting agencies from having influence over Florida’s colleges and universities.

“It’s not just that it doesn’t make sense to have these accreditation agencies have so much power. We believe it violates the law and the federal Constitution to allow them to exercise such power,” DeSantis said. “You cannot take legislative power and delegate it to an unaccountable private body and let them administer that power without any type of checks and balances.”

For a college or university to fully operate in the United States with access to federal student loans, it must be accredited by federally approved private accrediting bodies known as “accreditors.” Last year, DeSantis signed legislation that requires colleges and universities to seek accreditation from different accreditors in consecutive accreditation cycles.

State law requires over half of Florida’s public colleges and universities to change accreditors in the next two years.

The lawsuit announced today asserts that the federal government’s current accreditation scheme is plainly unlawful under the “private non-delegation doctrine,” which holds that “federal power can be wielded only by the federal government [and] private entities may do so only if they are subordinate to an agency,” as well as other constitutional provisions and federal laws.

DeSantis, who is running for president in 2024 and frequently criticizes the Biden administration, said more than $100 billion in student aid every year hinges on the decisions of these accreditation agencies.

“We’re going to make sure our institutions are governed by the best interests of the people and the best interests of the state,” DeSantis said. “When you’re forking over billions of dollars as taxpayers for these institutions, you have every right to ensure that there’s adequate accountability and that these institutions are pursuing the mission that the people of this state believe in.”

DeSantis claims that the U.S. Department of Education “has unconstitutionally collaborated with accreditation bodies to try to block the governor’s efforts to bring increased transparency and accountability to public colleges and universities.”

“For too long, private academic accreditors have been holding our colleges and universities hostage,” Moody said. “We are fighting to take back our public postsecondary education system from unelected private organizations that have no accountability or oversight.”

According to a report from the Tampa Bay Times, the lawsuit follows a tense period between Florida and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which is the main regional accrediting body in 11 southern states. Until last year, the organization accredited all 12 of the state’s public universities.

“They (SACS) felt like they were the governing body. In 2021, they threatened the accreditation status of FSU, because the Florida (university system) Board of Governors was considering our commissioner of education for the FSU president,” Moody said.

The U.S. Department of Education last year cited Florida’s changes as it released guidance about accreditation to colleges and universities and accrediting agencies.

“Recent changes to the accreditation landscape, such as the expansion of former regional accreditors to now accredit institutions outside their typical geographic boundaries and a new law in Florida that mandates public institutions to switch accrediting agencies before their next accreditation cycle, have been confusing to institutions and may also have a chilling effect on accrediting agencies as they seek to effectively do their job,” a July 19, 2022, announcement about the guidance said. “As a result, the Department (of Education) has taken a fresh look at the regulations and seeks to clarify the process for institutions looking to change accrediting agencies.”

The announcement, posted on the department’s website, was titled, “Postsecondary Accreditation Cannot Become a Race to the Bottom.”

“The department aims to protect against a race to the bottom and ensure that accreditation remains a voluntary process, as required by law, and that institutions are not forced to switch against their will,” the announcement said. “The department will continue to work with institutions and accrediting agencies to implement these processes and protocols and to further ensure strong standards to better serve all students.”

In the lawsuit, the state argues that federal laws and policies hamper colleges and universities’ efforts to change accreditors and violate parts of the U.S. Constitution and the federal Administrative Procedure Act. The so-called APA deals with the way federal agencies can craft and issue regulations.

About the Author:

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.