Accreditors Should Work Harder to Include the Public

Federal law calls for “public” members of accreditors’ boards. It shouldn’t be ignored.

In theory, university accrediting bodies are supposed to monitor academic quality. However, they are not always good at their jobs. As recent Martin Center coverage has argued, accreditors often have ulterior motives, punishing and rewarding colleges based on how closely they follow approved ideologies.

Yet, regardless of whether these institutions are necessary and fair, they still hold tremendous power. It is important to ensure that they have some accountability to the American people. One way Congress has attempted to guarantee as much is by requiring the accrediting agencies to fill at least one in every seven board seats with a “public” member. However, it seems that the accreditors have been struggling to abide by this mandate. Perhaps because such oversight can be tedious and is often unpaid, accreditors have lately been confronted with the challenge of recruiting a sufficient number of new board members, many of whom are recruited via word of mouth.

The purpose of the law is to prevent clubbiness and insider-ism among higher-ed accreditors.The purpose of the “public-member” provision in the Higher Education Amendments of 1992 was to prevent clubbiness and insider-ism among higher-ed accreditors. Without board representatives from outside the postsecondary-education world, the accrediting bodies could easily become insular or riddled with conflicts of interest.

Unfortunately, the ’92 law’s definition of “public member” was rather broad and required only that such persons were “not a member of any related trade or membership organization.” According to the Center for American Progress, this has resulted in a state of affairs in which “more than two-thirds of the 31 public commissioners at national accreditors are current or former college administrators, professors, or college owners.” This doesn’t mean, of course, that such members have done anything wrong. But the spirit of the law is clearly not being followed.

Though some might argue that public members should have ties to higher education (in order to ensure that they have some understanding of how colleges work), the risk of a circular and self-involved system is more pronounced than the risk of board-member ignorance. If the whole point of the law is to bring in outside opinions, then public members who have existing ties to higher education defeat the purpose.

Another issue with the lack of public representation is the fact that accreditation allows colleges to accept federally-guaranteed student-loan dollars, which are ultimately backed by taxpayer money. This means that the public is being made to pay for something that it often has no real say in.

Perhaps one way to help with the accreditors’ recruitment problems would be to devise a better strategy than word of mouth. Accreditors should dream up better advertising for these roles so that the public is more aware of the opportunity. Congress might also provide a better definition of “public member.” Overall, the accrediting agencies should strive to give the public more say in what goes on in higher education.

Lucy Maher is a student at Thales College and a Martin Center intern.