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Op-ed: New bill threatens federal financial aid for Florida’s students

This column was originally published on Feb. 20, 2022, by the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

By ANDREW GOTHARD, UFF President

 The beatings will continue until morale improves.

Such is the mantra of the Florida Legislature these days, as a number of bills currently under consideration would dramatically restrict everything from voting rights to an individual’s personal liberty to be who they are, spend their money how they wish, and believe or think whatever seems best to them.

This theme of punishing Florida’s citizens for doing their jobs is particularly evident in higher education, where new bills that tinker with accreditation standards for political gain could end up costing hundreds of thousands of Florida’s higher education students access to federal financial aid and federal student loans.

Among other things, the “Postsecondary Education” legislation (SB 7044/HB 7051) requires every university and college in Florida to change accreditors at the beginning of each accrediting cycle (roughly every 5-7 years, on average), and it provides a legal cause of action against any accreditor that takes retaliatory action against an institution. The latter part should read more accurately as any accreditor that fairly applies its rules to all schools it accredits, including those in Florida.

The short of it is the “ruling party,” as some in power would clearly like to be called, is upset the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), which accredits Florida’s higher ed institutions, is applying the same standards to our state’s flagship schools that they apply to every other university and college in the Southeast. This has been most recently seen when the accreditor warned against shoehorning Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran into the presidency at Florida State University due to a lack of qualifications and in the ongoing investigation of the University of Florida for reported instances of “undue political influence” on faculty and students.

Here’s the upshot: If you talk to faculty and higher ed administrators all over this state (in other words, the people who actually do the work to ensure their campuses are accredited), they will tell you that these legislators are playing political games with a system that they do not fully understand — and the potentially dire consequences will fall upon the students.

Contrary to what has been said in committee hearings, accrediting bodies are not required to accept new applications from Florida schools, and the allowance of legal action against accreditors that enforce their rules will almost certainly ensure that they won’t have anything to do with us. So, when a school can’t find a new accreditor, and it can’t go back to SACS by law, Florida’s schools will lose accreditation.

A loss of accreditation means that, at minimum, students will no longer have access to federal financial aid, such as Pell Grants and federal student loans, which are key to making higher ed equally accessible to all Floridians. Future degrees from that institution will become worthless, and students will be left scrambling to transfer to competing institutions, where their current course credits may no longer have value. High quality faculty will no longer seek Florida’s higher ed campuses as their home, and the research funding as well technological and industrial innovations that they would have brought to our state will be taken elsewhere.

In short, the upside to these bills cannot be found, while the downside could be catastrophic, all for no tangible improvement to the higher ed system.

Average folks in Florida don’t often worry about higher ed accreditation because they don’t have to. This is the advantage of having one of the best, if not the best, public higher education system in the country. Don’t let Tallahassee take that away from all of us just to score a few cheap political points against a regional accreditor. Ask your legislators to vote NO on SB 7044 / HB 7051 before they cause irreparable harm to Florida’s higher education system.

Andrew Gothard teaches English at Florida Atlantic University and is president of the United Faculty of Florida.

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