Getting Back on Track with TRACS: An Accreditation Agency Blazing a Trail for Small HBCUs

Accreditation is critical for institutions of higher education. Not only is it an indication of academic quality, but it also provides a level of assurance to the public that the institution is fulfilling its mission, equipping students with a rigorous academic experience, and engaging in systematic peer review processes to continuously strengthen the educational quality of an institution. Accreditation also helps to facilitate the transfer of credits between postsecondary institutions, and it provides students with access to Title IV federal student aid. If an institution loses its accreditation, it will have a significant impact on the sustainability and survival of a higher education institution. Traditionally, there were three general types of accrediting agencies, each serving in their own purpose. Regional accrediting agencies operated in six regions of the United States and concentrated their reviews on institutions of higher education within specific regions of the country. National accrediting agencies reviewed institutions with a common theme, for example, religiously affiliated or vocation focused institutions. Finally, programmatic accrediting agencies operate nationwide and review programs and single-purpose institutions.   Dr. Kevin JamesDr. Kevin James

The largest and most diverse accreditation body for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) which serves as the postsecondary accreditor for the 11 southern states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. As of 2017, 80 of the 101 HBCUs were located within those states, giving SACSCOC a disproportionate influence over HBCUs. While accreditation is essentially fundamental for institutions of higher education, some have argued that the accreditation process is biased toward HBCUs.   

Specifically, pundits and scholars have pointed out that the SACSCOC employs peer review processes that may be implicitly unfair to HBCUs.  For example, according to a white paper from the United Negro College Fund, HBCUs accredited by the SACSCOC have been sanctioned at a higher rate compared to their non-HBCU counterparts. Further, this paper also noted that several HBCUs were either placed on warning or on probation from 1998 to 2013. Moreover, HBCUs accredited by SACSCOC, such as Morris Brown College, Barber-Scotia College, Paul Quinn, St. Paul’s College, and Bennett College, had their accreditation revoked. Conversely seven HBCUs, such as Bennett College; Clinton College; Morris Brown College; Paine College; Paul Quinn College; Shorter College, and Virginia University of Lynchburg have been able to gain an accreditation status with the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS). Moreover, several other HBCUs have expressed interest in moving to TRACS.  

According to its website, TRACS was founded in 1979 “as a voluntary, non-profit, self-governing organization to promote the welfare, interests, and development of postsecondary institutions whose mission is characterized by a distinctly Christian purpose . . .” TRACS currently accredits approximately 90 schools in 21 states, with 6 overseas locations. TRACS is recognized by the United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). It is also a member of the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE). While TRACS has been in existence for over 40 years, there are many who may not be familiar with this accreditation body. Since it is not one of the more well-known six regional accreditation bodies, the higher education community might not be aware of TRACS as a national accreditor, and therefore may perceive that the quality of the national accreditation differs from regional accreditation agencies.

These perceived concerns, however, are not grounded. Indeed, according to a letter from the US Department of Education released on February 26th, 2020, entitled Final Accreditation and State Authorization Regulations, “[US Department of Education] holds all accrediting agencies to the same standards.” Specifically, this document indicated that “distinctions between regional and national accrediting agencies are unfounded…. As a result of new regulations, instead of distinguishing between regional and national accredited agencies, the Department will only distinguish between institutional and programmatic accrediting agencies. The US Department of Education also expresses to states that they should consider alignment with their new regulations. Moreover, the US Department of Education no longer uses the terms, “regional” or “national” to refer to an accreditation agency.”                    Dr. Robert T. PalmerDr. Robert T. Palmer    

 As if the letter from the US Department of Education was not sufficient to help dispel concerns about TRACS as an accreditation body, we conducted a systematic analysis of the accreditation standards of TRACS in comparison to SACSCOC. For this analysis, we examined the 2021 TRACS Accreditation Manual compared to the 2018 SACSCOC Principles of Accreditation. Results from our examination revealed the following: with some exceptions, TRACS accreditation standards are consistent with those of SACSCOC. Differences were noted in several areas, however. For example, TRACS accreditation standards 1.1 and 1.2 underscore an institution having a Faith Statement that is readily available and that is periodically reviewed by the institution’s Board. SACSCOC has no direct equivalent. Other differences include TRACS accreditation standards 2.2., 6.4., 6.6., 7.1., 7.2., 7.4., 8.11., 9.3., 11.3., 11.5., and 13.2 in which SACSCOC has no direct equivalent. Similar to TRACS, SACSCOC also has some accreditation standards to which TRACS has no direct equivalent. These include 4.3.,10.3, 12.3, 14.2., and 14.5. In total, TRACS has more standards for which SACSCOC has no direct equivalent than SACSCOC. While these similarities and differences are not a reflection of quality or rigor, it is important to note that TRACS (like SACSCOC and several other reputable accreditation agencies) is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE). Highlighting these organizations are important because CHEA is a national organization focused exclusively on higher education accreditation and quality assurance and is a major national voice and advocate for higher education accreditation and quality assurance. Similarly, the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE) is a world-wide association of 300+ organizations active in the theory and practice of quality assurance in higher education. 

While empirical research has not indicated why more HBCUs seem to be turning toward TRACS for accreditation, what is clear is that HBCU leaders are finding that TRACS seem to provide a better fit for their institutions. According to an article published in Diverse Issues In Higher Education, HBCU college leaders praised TRACS for providing a lifeline to HBCUs. Specifically, Dr. Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn, indicated that TRACS is a fantastic accreditor, and provides a rigorous and collegial experience. He also indicated that TRACS’ faith-based focus is critical, given that many HBCUs were founded by religious groups or maintain active connections with religious organizations. Dr. Timothy Eaton, president of TRACS, explained that the accreditor tends to work with smaller colleges that have faced financial problems due to their sizes. Eaton added that in general accreditation agencies expect small colleges to function like larger functions whereas TRACS is especially sensitive to the needs and functions of small colleges.    

Dr. Kevin James is the president of Morris Brown College.

Dr. Robert T. Palmer is department chair and associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Howard University.

Kathleen Rzucidlo is a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Howard University.