Birnbaum, Matthew

Committee Member

Li, Amy

Committee Member

Sileo, Nancy

Committee Member

Cohen, Michael


College of Education and Behavioral Sciences; Leadership and development: Higher Education and P-12 Education, Higher Education Student Affairs Leadership


University of Northern Colorado

Type of Resources


Place of Publication

Greeley (Colo.)


University of Northern Colorado

Date Created



204 pages

Digital Origin

Born digital


Accreditation is an integral component of the higher education landscape. Regional accreditors accredit approximately 7,000 institutions of higher education in the United States. In the decade from 2008 to 2018, these accrediting agencies have been the recipients of significant criticism and demands for change. This study explored federal public policy narrative related to accreditation reform through the lens of Narrative Policy Framework (NPF) theory. The research was bounded by an embedded case study of legislation from the 115th U.S. Congress. The subcomponents identified within the case were two pieces of legislation written to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA). The two bills: Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act and the Aim Higher Act, included significant recommendations for accreditation reform. The purpose of the study was to determine how competing coalitions use narrative in public policy documents to escalate the issue of accreditation reform, and how narrative contributes to the formation of the subsequent policy. The findings from the study suggest that narrative, in particular the use of narrative that described the exploitation of students and taxpayers, contributed to the prioritization of the issue of accreditation reform. Identified as the devil shift strategy in NPF theory, pro-reform policy actors consistently used the inclusion of villains (accrediting agencies) and victims (students) in their narrative to garner the attention of legislators. Additionally, the findings indicated these policy actors used additional narrative strategies to inform and influence the formation of the accreditation reform legislation introduced during the 115th Congress. Public policy at all levels, but especially at the federal level, is a significant factor in how institutions of higher education conduct their business, support students, and advance research agendas. This study uncovered the significant influence policy actors have on the prioritization and formation of higher education policy. Diverse policy actors from mass media, think tanks, advocacy groups, and foundations use their social and financial capital to forward their agendas and mold the future of higher education through accreditation reform. It is critical for higher education leaders to ensure all voices contribute to the conversation and that policy actors use narrative strategies to minimize divisiveness and to build consensus.

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