DeSantis Sued Biden Over Tying College Certification to Financial Aid

  • DeSantis sued the Biden administration to snatch power from agencies that certify quality higher ed.
  • The agencies help decide which schools will get billions of dollars in student loans. 
  • The suit is an early sign of the college and university overhaul ahead if DeSantis is president. 

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is suing the Biden administration over a federal law requiring colleges and universities to get a quality stamp of approval from certain accrediting agencies.

Florida officials argued in a complaint filed Thursday that the federal government shouldn’t hinge student aid on whether colleges and universities receive approval from such agencies, which are privately run. 

The complaint alleges that ceding power to accrediting agencies is unconstitutional, saying in the 41-page lawsuit against the US Department of Education that “unelected academics” have “unchecked power” to decide what education standards should be.

The certification agencies have strayed from their purpose, which is to sign off on a school meeting basic quality education standards, and now impose political views and interfere with how institutions are run, Florida officials allege.

“We reject the idea that a totally unaccountable, unappointed, unelected accrediting agency can trump what the state of Florida is doing,” DeSantis said during a press conference at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida. “We’re asking the court to find this arrangement to be unconstitutional.”

Under federal law, the accrediting agencies set up standards to decide which colleges and universities will receive roughly $112 billion in federal funding that goes toward student loans. Schools have to undergo lengthy reviews as part of the process, and they’re assigned to one of six certifiers based on their region.

Florida higher education institutions in particular have to receive accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, a body on which universities in 11 other states, including Texas and Virginia, also rely. The accreditor’s relationship with Florida has been strained even before DeSantis became governor. 

In an unprecedented move last April, DeSantis signed a bill into law that requires Florida colleges and universities to switch accreditors soon, and then every five to 10 years.

The Biden administration sent DeSantis a letter expressing its disapproval and then, according to the lawsuit, the Department of Education “escalated that hostility” by issuing regulations saying any switch in accreditors had to go through the agency first.

The association recently threatened Florida State University’s accreditation when it was considering hiring Richard Corcoran, the state’s former education commissioner, as its university president. 

The association also opened an investigation into the University of Florida after it blocked professors from providing expertise in a federal elections case involving mail-in ballots and drop boxes. 

Florida officials argued in their complaint that such actions aren’t related to education quality and that schools should instead be accountable to voters in the state and the officials they elect. 

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody filed the lawsuit in Fort Lauderdale in the United States District Court in the Southern District of Florida.

It’s not clear yet whether other states will join the lawsuit, but Moody appeared to suggest that was ahead, telling DeSantis during the Tampa press conference on Thursday that, “I wouldn’t be surprised if other states followed your brave lead.” 

Representatives from the White House and the Department of Education did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment. 

Ron DeSantis sitting at a table while he signs the so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill into law surrounded by young school children.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs a Florida education bill into law.

(Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP, File)

The lawsuit shows deeper political divides in education policy 

Proponents of accreditation programs say GOP hostilities are politically motivated and that taxpayer dollars should only go to schools that show they are providing students with a high-quality education.

DeSantis asserted that the current state of higher ed was not a good value on Thursday as he blasted runaway student debt and the fact that the majority of higher education students don’t graduate on time.  

He touted a recent ranking for Florida from US News & World Report that ranked the state No. 1 in higher education, largely because of its high graduation rates and low tuition. DeSantis has declined to increase tuition rates during his time as governor. 

DeSantis is one of the few Republicans running for the 2024 presidential nomination who is currently holding down a high-profile government job, giving him a platform to make news through actions in his state, but also opening an opportunity for him to show what his policies would be if elected to the White House.

He hinted at what it might look like, saying a “competitive market” should exist among accrediting agencies — giving colleges the right to pick and choose who will certify their institutions. He also alleged in the lawsuit that the Department of Education should be allowed to review, approve, and reject any standards accreditors set. 

“Within the next couple years, I think we’re going to see this accreditation cartel basically come crumbling down, and more freedom in higher education reigning supreme, so that will be a good thing for this country,” DeSantis said at Thursday’s press conference.

The Education Department recognizes accreditors if they meet certain federal rules, but DeSantis said accountability over the bodies was far from adequate. 

The lawsuit gives DeSantis a point of contrast with former President Donald Trump, the 2024 GOP frontrunner, who promised if reelected that he would “fire” existing accrediting organizations and replace them with new ones that would create college standards he approves.

The plan would require colleges to offer degrees students could get for less time and for a lower cost, and force universities to fire diversity, equity, and inclusion administrators. 

Reshaping education has been one of DeSantis’ top policy priorities as governor. Among his actions have been restricting higher ed institutions from spending money on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. He also imposed conservative changes to New College of Florida, a public liberal arts college in Sarasota.

More broadly, Republicans have developed a hostile relationship with higher education institutions in recent years, viewing them as aligned with liberal policies and even decrying them as “Marxist.” 

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