Educational gag orders could destroy the structure of higher education

Universities and programmes could lose their accreditation and students could lose their financial aid if governors continue signing these legislative restrictions

Jeremy C. Young's avatar
PEN America
29 Apr 2022
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Educational gag orders threaten the very fabric of US higher education

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Educational gag orders are coming for higher education. These legislative restrictions on the freedom to read, learn and teach are now law in 13 states, including six that specifically restrict education in colleges and universities. Yet some governors who have signed higher ed gag orders into law have also spoken favourably about higher ed as a whole. They seem to think they can have it both ways: censor college faculty without undermining public higher education in their states.

Those governors are wrong. This type of broad, hopelessly vague legislation could have destructive unintended consequences. Universities and programmes could lose their accreditation; students could lose their financial aid; early college credit in some subjects could disappear entirely. By passing educational gag orders, lawmakers are risking a lot more than they realise.

Let’s start with university accreditation, the mechanism by which US higher ed maintains basic standards of quality. Approval by one of the seven regional accreditation agencies is how you know you’re getting a meaningful education. It’s also how your future employers know to trust your credentials; many won’t hire an employee with an unaccredited degree. Get rid of accreditation and there’s no difference between a world-class education and a scam – between a degree from a high-quality public or private university and one from a diploma mill.

Losing accreditation is catastrophic for any college. Students at these schools become ineligible to receive federal financial aid, something 83.8 per cent of college students nationwide rely on. Their degrees, including those of alumni who have already graduated, are devalued in the eyes of employers. Historically speaking, loss of accreditation is frequently a death sentence for universities; half of all colleges that lost their regional accreditation between 2000 and 2015 closed their doors permanently.

So imagine what would happen if every public college in an entire state lost its accreditation all at once.

That’s exactly the disaster states such as Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota and Tennessee are courting by adopting gag orders that restrict classroom teaching in higher education. How likely are colleges to lose accreditation in these states? It’s a distinct possibility. All seven regional accreditors signed a June 2021 statement, co-authored by PEN America, that condemned educational gag orders for “seek[ing] to substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators”. In March 2022, six of them signed a second statement organised by the American Council on Education. “Efforts to suppress inquiry, curb discussion and limit what can be studied,” the statement declares, “undermine the very purpose of higher education.”

As Ohio State University administrators and accreditation peer reviewers Julie Carpenter-Hubin and Ken Lee recently pointed out, each of the seven accreditation agencies has policies that require university governing boards to be free from “undue influence” by elected officials. Those policies could require accreditors to withdraw accreditation from all colleges whose educational standards are constrained by state-wide gag orders, an outcome the authors call a “grenade under the tent of higher education”.

Before an educational gag order became law in their state, the faculty senate at the University of Southern Mississippi also warned that it could threaten their school’s accreditation. Meanwhile, the Florida legislature recently passed a law that would allow schools to sue accreditation agencies in the event of an adverse review – a provision that could also lead all public colleges in Florida to lose accreditation, since few accreditors would agree to review a college if it meant risking a lawsuit.

Educational gag orders also pose a particular threat to teacher-training programmes in university education departments. These programmes have their own accreditation body that will not certify a programme unless student teachers “are able to apply their knowledge of content at the appropriate progression levels”, which could be difficult in states where gag orders restrict K-12 teachers’ ability to teach relevant subject matter. Putting the accreditation of teacher-training programmes at risk will only exacerbate the national teacher shortage.

Loss of accreditation isn’t the only concern for higher learning in states with educational gag orders; early college credit is at risk as well. In 2020, 1.2 million public high school students took the rigorous Advanced Placement (AP) exams administered by the College Board. High scores on these tests, for which students prepare by enrolling in official Advanced Placement courses at their high schools, are often accepted for college credit at universities.

But educational gag orders threaten the Advanced Placement programme, too. “If a school bans required topics from their AP courses,” the College Board noted in a recent statement of principles, “the AP program removes the AP designation from that course and its inclusion in the AP Course Ledger provided to colleges and universities.” This could result in the cancellation of AP literature and AP US history courses in affected states, as the American Historical Association warned in December 2021.

Meanwhile, in 2010-11, 1.4 million public high school students enrolled in concurrent enrolment courses, taught for both college and high school credit by college-approved high school instructors – and the numbers continued to increase until the pandemic hit. There has been little public discussion of educational gag orders’ impact on concurrent enrolment standards, which are generally determined by the university overseeing the course. But it stands to reason that concurrent enrolment courses in history and literature whose content is restricted by K-12 educational gag orders could be disapproved or discontinued by the universities currently supporting them.

Higher education is not a toy. Shake its foundations enough times and it will break. Perhaps some legislators don’t care if it becomes exponentially more difficult for students in their states to receive college credit, financial aid or degrees. But those who do value their states’ institutions of higher learning should resist educational gag orders. They should recognise that these bills are not merely threats to free expression and academic freedom; they are threats to public higher education itself.

Jeremy C Young is senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America. A former college history professor, he is the author of The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940.

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