Accreditors struggle to recruit public members, incorporate them into decision-making

Dive Brief:

  • A new survey reveals higher education accreditors struggle to find and train members of the general public to sit on their governing boards — necessary steps to fulfill a requirement under federal law.
  • The Council for Higher Education Accreditation distributed the survey last summer to 85 accreditors that it or the U.S. Department of Education recognize. A total of 25 accreditors responded, sharing background on how many public members they have, how they identify those people and the process of onboarding them. 
  • Accreditors said word of mouth is their primary method of recruiting public members. They said they have found the members through referrals or conferences.

Dive Insight:

In the early 1990s, Congress rewrote the Higher Education Act, or HEA, to mandate that accreditors bring in public members to their boards. Lawmakers’ intent was to diversify the voices within accreditor governing bodies — adding an outsider perspective to counterbalance the higher ed officials that mostly comprise boards. 

Scrounging up public members, however, can prove challenging. Accreditors generally do not pay public members for their work, which can be intensive. Sometimes accrediting boards can meet for multiple days, for which public members may have to take time off from their jobs.

Public members may also need to learn the intricacies of accreditors, which try to ensure colleges meet certain financial, governance and academic benchmarks. Accreditors also serve as gatekeepers for federal financial aid. 

Many survey respondents said it can take a couple of years for public members to completely learn accreditor operations. And typically, term lengths for all board members last three years, the accreditors said.

All of the roadblocks contribute to a limited pool of potential public members. Some accrediting bodies have pulled in members with useful business backgrounds, like lawyers or accountants. 

But in other cases, accreditors have skirted the intent of having public members by recruiting those with “direct links to colleges, suggesting that they lack the necessary independence that a public commissioner should bring,” the Center for American Progress, a policy institute, wrote in 2019. CAP found that six of 14 accrediting agencies it studied that year had public members with college ties. 

“This is not to suggest that these public commissioners lack useful qualifications or that the agencies are violating existing requirements for these individuals,” CAP wrote at the time. “Rather, these findings expose the weaknesses in the definition of public members that Congress should address in the HEA or that the U.S. Department of Education should fix through regulation.”

The law dictates that at least one in seven board seats need to be held by public members of accrediting bodies. 

The size of these boards vary, and the survey found the number of public members ranged from zero to 11 for the largest commissions. 

Institutional accreditors, which evaluate entire colleges, have boards ranging in size between 10 and 77 total members, while programmatic accreditors, which target individual degree programs, have as few as eight members and as many as 32.

Surveyed accreditors praised public members, saying they are integral to boards and they can serve many roles, like being a student advocate or expert in some field. 

Accreditor boards should focus on adding public members who focus on consumer protection, said Clare McCann, a former senior policy adviser at the Education Department who now works as a higher education fellow at philanthropy Arnold Ventures.

She said she’s seen officials retire from institutions and then “there’s a very quick transition” to serving as a public board member. 

The Education Department indicated last month it will devise a regulation that governs accreditation. McCann said she thinks “everything will be on the table” when the department starts to work on the rule, including potential changes to public membership. 

“The department will be looking for a fresh start with accreditation,” she said.

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