During the May 29 Board meeting, NDUS Chief of Staff Murray Sagsveen presented a memorandum to the Board entitled “Potential Constitutional Measure 3 Issues Related to Accreditation.” As Sagsveen writes, the memorandum was not intended to address “whether the NDUS could be better governed by a full-time three-member commission instead of an eight-member citizen governing board.” Instead, the purpose was to inform the board of the potential effects this measure could have on the accreditation of all NDUS institutions. What follows is a summary of the memorandum and his presentation.
Accreditation is a status conferred by national and regional accrediting bodies to ensure educational excellence and financial integrity of higher education institutions and programs. Title IV requires all institutions that offer federal financial aid programs such as Pell grants, Perkins loans, work-study, federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans, and Parent and Graduate PLUS loan programs, be accredited by a recognized accrediting agency. NDUS students benefited from $270,544,051 in disbursements from these programs during the 2012-2013 academic year.
The cornerstone accrediting agency for all NDUS institutions is the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), so the majority of concerns expressed in Sagsveen’s presentation are related to HLC requirements. However, separate schools and programs at NDUS institutions are also accredited by other agencies such as Diesel Technology, Nursing or Law, for example. Accreditation reviews may also be needed by those accrediting agencies in the case of a governance change.
Higher Learning Commission Requirements
The HLC requires that accredited institutions be governed by an autonomous board in order that it “might make decisions in the best interest of the institution(s) and to assure its integrity.” (HLC Core Components 2.C) The HLC has previously submitted concerns to Legislative Council questioning both the initial and final versions of HCR 3047, the legislation which initiated Measure 3.
HLC guidelines also state that all governance changes must be approved prior to implementation as to not impede accreditation. This presents a potential problem as an approving vote on Measure 3 in the November election will trigger a rapid series of events. Transition legislation and the appointment and confirmation of the commission appointees must be accomplished during the 2015 legislative session. Once the transition legislation passes and is signed by the governor, which may not be until near session end (April 29), the NDUS will complete an application to the HLC for a change in governance. After that application is filed, the HLC must complete a site visit and report to the HLC president, the HLC president must submit a recommendation to the HLC board, and the HLC board must then act on the NDUS application at their June 2015 meeting in order to meet the implementation deadline of July 2015.
What Happens if the Governance Change is Not Approved?
Failure to obtain approval of the governance change prior to July 1, 2015, could trigger action such as placing all NDUS institutions “on notice” or “probation” – and could result in the loss of accreditation of all NDUS institutions. If the HLC sanctions the institutions within the NDUS, the institutions would be at great risk (e.g. loss of students, loss of grants, loss of reputation, etc.) until corrective action could be taken. However, the necessary corrective action and timeliness of that action could depend on whether the HLC focuses on the constitutional amendment, the transitional legislation, or both. Any issues regarding the transitional legislation could not be addressed until January 2017, unless the governor calls a special session and appropriate corrective legislation is enacted. Any issues regarding the constitutional amendment could be corrected only if the Legislative Assembly, in the 2017 session or earlier special session, adopts another resolution to place an appropriate constitutional measure on the ballot and then only if the voters approved the measure during the election.
It is impossible to predict how many students may choose not to attend a NDUS institution or transfer to a different institution outside the system as a result of HLC sanctions. However, even a 10 percent decrease in enrollment is estimated to cause $150 million revenue loss in the next biennium.
“All indications are that loss of accreditation, or even the HLC’s imposition of sanctions – could substantially harm the eleven institutions in the University System and the nearly 50,000 students who are attending those institutions,” Sagsveen writes.