- As of January 2019, 22 out of 69 public commissioners at accrediting agencies had stronger ties to higher education institutions than with the general public, contrary to the purpose of the position, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress (CAP).
- Commissioners at accrediting agencies determine whether to grant accreditation or impose sanctions on colleges. As such, the role of public commissioner was meant "to provide an outside perspective" as commissioners tend to represent institutions the accreditor oversees, CAP writes.
- CAP makes several policy recommendations to better align the public commissioner role with the public interest, including by preventing those who have worked "primarily in higher education" in the past decade from serving in the role.
In 1992, Congress rolled out legislation requiring accreditors' governance boards to include public commissioners in order to make accreditors "more independent and less beholden to schools," writes Ben Miller, CAP's vice president for postsecondary education.
Lawmakers intended for public commissioners to represent the public during the accreditation process to stem such concerns. Yet, nearly three decades later, some accrediting agencies are filling the position with people who, Miller says, have clear links to higher education institutions.
CAP found that to be the case with a handful of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges' (SACSCOC) public commissioners. Two former public commissioners, for example, led trade associations that represent private nonprofit colleges in two states, while a third is a registered lobbyist who has worked — unpaid — for an institution accredited by SACSCOC.
Likewise, higher education experts have criticized the inherent issues stemming from college professionals working on accrediting boards. "There are concerns about back-scratching," Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, told Education Dive earlier this year. "If you let my college through, I'll let yours go through."
CAP doesn't fault the accreditors for this trend, but rather the loose rules that bar only those directly employed by a college from serving as a public commissioner. An improved definition would expand this ban to newly retired college administrators and professors, as well as individuals who have represented schools on a commission, Miller writes.
The report comes amid mounting criticism that accreditors aren't protecting students and taxpayers. A recent spate of for-profit college closures has heightened calls for stronger oversight mechanisms intended to identify failing institutions.
Others say the Ed Department has failed to shut down accreditors with a record of green-lighting predatory and struggling schools.
Last year, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos restored federal recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), an embattled for-profit accreditor. Only months later, one of its largest accredited institutions, Education Corporation of America, abruptly shut down.
More recently, ACICS' need to recruit new member institutions in order to stay afloat has raised fresh concerns that the accreditor will have lax oversight of schools.