- The University of Maine System's board of trustees this week unanimously approved a recommendation from its new chancellor to accredit its seven institutions as a single entity.
- In a statement, the system said the move would help it better share academic programs and serve state residents. Its universities will stay "where they currently exist," it said.
- The system expects to submit a substantive change application to its accreditor by the end of June. It would likely be the first time a U.S. university system is accredited in such a manner, and the novel arrangement raises a host of questions for higher ed oversight groups.
The Maine system has been discussing singular accreditation for decades. But the idea picked up steam in the last few years as the system worked to consolidate administrative functions and cut costs. During that time, it also documented steps taken to advance the singular accreditation idea and garnered support from its accreditor.
In his proposal to the board to streamline accreditation, Chancellor Dannel Malloy cited as an imperative the "more recent reality" of resource constraints, declining demographics, new technology, changing student expectations and state workforce needs, along with a requirement for more collaboration within the system.
Maine has the oldest median age of any U.S. state, with more residents ages 65 or older than those under 18, according to Census data and local media reports. State spending on higher education there has remained largely flat since the recession, while expected annual support rose 17% from the 2015 to the 2020 fiscal years.
But moving a diverse set of institutions to singular accreditation raises a host of questions for accreditors, state regulators and the Education Department, experts told Education Dive.
Among them is what happens when a single university within the system has trouble meeting an accreditor's standards, said Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy at New America, a left-leaning think tank.
"This is essentially saying that the quality of one institution in the system is the quality of all of them," she said. "You don't want to get to a ... too-big-to-fail situation, where an accreditor is not willing to take an action, but you also don't want to unfairly punish pieces of the system that might not have these issues."
Another potential challenge is restructuring decision-making, particularly for institutions that have operated as single entities, said Antoinette Flores, director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. However, she added, the change could help the university maintain programs that would otherwise be eliminated due to low enrollment on individual campuses.
"It sounds like this plan, in particular, has been discussed and has been contemplated for a long time," she said. "So there's been a lot of thinking into how it can be done, what are the challenges, how to overcome them."
Maine's approach to that process offers valuable lessons for other institutions considering some form of consolidation, said Aims McGuinness, a senior fellow for the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems who worked in the University of Maine System in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The system, McGuinness said, is a "model for deliberate efforts to try things and to learn from their experience, to learn from their failures and to reshape their strategies in order to overcome things that didn't work."
It's also critical, he added, to be upfront about the purpose of the change. "You'll find a number of states going through different iterations of that," he said.
Maine is not the only state looking to some form of consolidation as a way to address headwinds facing the sector. The University of Alaska System proposed singular accreditation for its three flagships last year as it sought to absorb the shock of a 41% cut in state funding, though the amount has since been reduced and the accreditation proposal rejected.
Meanwhile, several public regional universities are merging to streamline programs and administrative oversight, cut costs and contend with lower enrollment.
At the Council for Higher Education Accreditation's annual conference Tuesday, Diane Auer Jones, principal deputy under secretary at the Ed Department, suggested the department would be open to proposals for singular accreditation, saying there are several state systems that would "save a lot of money" if they were accredited as a system instead of as single institutions.
But Flores said cost savings are not a guarantee, and McCann noted that they shouldn't be the goal of accreditation.
"The expensive part is not necessarily the accreditation itself, it's more so the time that goes into reviews and program changes and self studies and that kind of thing," Flores said.
"You could see a world where they're doing less reporting," she said of systems under singular accreditation, noting that the anticipated changes in Maine would require many approvals. But, she added, "that's an open question."