Last week, a federal district court sitting in Georgia upheld the decision of regional accreditor, The Southern Association of Colleges & Schools Commission on Colleges, to revoke accreditation of The Paine College, a historically black college in Augusta, Georgia. Paine had been accredited by The Southern Association for nearly 100 years. After news reports surfaced in 2012 alleging financial mismanagement, however, the Southern Association opened an evaluation of Paine’s accreditation, which resulted in findings that Paine was out of compliance with financial accreditation requirements. The Southern Association then gave Paine four years to establish compliance, placing it first on “warning” status and then “probation” status. Ultimately finding Paine failed to establish compliance with financial resources and stability requirements, among others, The Southern Association finally revoked Paine’s accreditation in 2016 and denied its subsequent appeal of that decision.

Paine then sought relief in federal district court, alleging a variety of due process violations as well as attempting to state a claim under the federal Higher Education Act. While the district court acknowledged that the HEA creates certain procedural safeguards for institutions under accreditation review, the court rejected Paine’s argument that the HEA created a private cause of action. Rather, the court held, Paine’s sole recourse was to establish that the accrediting body (which the court deemed a “quasi-public” professional organization) had violated its due process rights. Ultimately, the court held that either Paine’s due process rights had not been violated or that Paine had failed to establish that any procedural irregularities had harmed Paine by changing the outcome.

The court acknowledged the high stakes involved in the case. It noted that an unaccredited college was unlikely to stay open given that accreditation serves as the key to federal financial aid eligibility. Nevertheless, the court sided with The Southern Association, granting it summary judgment and dismissing all Paine’s claims. In reaching its decision, the court emphasized the strongly deferential standard it must apply to accreditation decisions made by an accreditor.

Paine now has 30 days to appeal the district court’s decision. Paine’s president was quoted as saying that Paine remains accredited while the litigation is proceeding, and that it is currently exploring other options for accreditation, including applying for accreditation through Transnational Association of Christian Colleges & Schools, a national accrediting body.

The court’s ruling illustrates the need for institutions under accreditation review to take the proceedings seriously. Appropriate resources for responding to inquiries should be enlisted from the outset, including not just those with administrative oversight for the compliance requirement in question but qualified counsel to coordinate the institution’s response and ensure that procedural safeguards are honored.

It also suggests that there is little tactical advantage to remaining silent when faced with procedural irregularities as the institution will have an uphill battle later to show that the irregularity was actually outcome determinative. If an institution believes that proceedings are being conducted in an unfair manner (here, for example, Paine argued that one decision-maker had a conflict of interest) it should carefully consider when and how to raise that objection as once a decision is made, options for judicial review and relief are extraordinarily limited.

Written by: Therese King Nohos

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