Every six months or so, about 18 higher education experts plant themselves in a hotel conference room for three days to dig deep into the federal recognition of accrediting agencies.
That recognition is more than an honorary status: It gives the agencies the authority to serve as the gatekeepers for more than $100 billion of federal student financial aid that is distributed every year. But despite the high stakes, a question nags at many members of the group, called the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity: Who cares?
Committee members, who began their biannual meeting Tuesday, have the ability to give the department advice on which accreditors to recognize and which policies to adopt. But even then, they are hamstrung by federal law and regulations about the scope of that advice. They regularly bemoan their lack of final decision-making authority. They also have little real autonomy from the Education Department. They are heavily dependent on information from the department staff. And their recommendations are often ignored.
It’s not just members of the advisory committee who are questioning their relevance. The accreditors, policy experts, and legal professionals who frequent the meetings have expressed their own concerns about the committee.
“Are Congress and the Education Department paying attention to what they say? Probably not,” said Antoinette Flores, associate director of postsecondary education policy at the Center for American Progress. But the committee still plays an important role by having a public discussion about accreditation, she said.
Remarks from one department official suggest that the agency wants to further curtail the committee’s role. Diane Auer Jones, a senior adviser in the Education Department, spoke briefly to the committee Tuesday afternoon about the department’s plans to renegotiate the rules around recognizing accreditors.
The Obama administration had given the committee a broad charge: It asked the group to examine the student outcomes of the colleges overseen by each accreditor. But Jones said the committee should instead focus more narrowly on the specifics of what accreditors must do to earn federal recognition, details contained in the Higher Education Act and its regulations.
Afterward, Jones said in an interview that her comments reflected only the views expressed to the department by accreditors and other policymakers. But those comments will very likely inform the discussion at future negotiated-rulemaking sessions on accreditor recognition.
New Committee, Same Old Problems
None of these issues are new. The advisory committee has struggled with its role since it was reconstituted after the last reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Congress overhauled the committee because of concerns that it was unduly influenced by the education secretary, who appointed all of its members (15 at the time).
Under the new structure, the secretary appointed just one-third of the committee’s 18 members. Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives split the responsibility of choosing the remaining 12 appointees.
But even with a larger and politically balanced structure, some of the same problems plague the committee, including its reliance on department staff analysis and its inability to set specific requirements for some accreditors.
During Tuesday’s deliberations, Anne D. Neal, a committee member, said she gets “a surreal feeling” during every meeting. “I’m looking at a two-page report that says there’s nothing to worry about,” she said of a staff report on the standards of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, one of the nation’s seven regional accrediting agencies.
“At the end of the day, I don’t know if the graduates of these colleges know how to write, know how to do math, and have the capacity to function as good citizens,” said Neal, a senior fellow at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
Committee members sometimes express frustration with their peers for leading discussions toward issues that fall outside the recognition process.
On Wednesday several committee members pressed the president of Western Governors University, Scott Pulsipher, to discuss negative audit findings from the federal Office of Inspector General. Pulsipher was there to represent a college of the Northwest Commission.
But Frank H. Wu, a committee member and distinguished professor of law at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law, said such a narrow focus isn’t the purpose of the committee. “We don’t want to be obsessively focused on just one institution,” Wu said. “We have to be thinking of our scope of authority.”
Accreditors have often left meetings disgruntled by harsh questioning , especially since 2015, when the Obama administration put new pressure on accrediting agencies. At the time, the Education Department encouraged Naciqi to probe the student outcomes of accreditors, and it created a data “dashboard” for the committee and the public to examine how colleges were performing under each agency.
Now, the Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos appear poised to scale back that effort and limit Naciqi’s discussion of student outcomes.
Such a move may be welcomed by accreditors, who are regularly blamed by committee members for the poorly performing colleges they oversee
But advocates for stronger accountability — and some committee members — warn that restraining Naciqi would also lower the bar for accreditors and colleges alike.
Ralph Wolff, a Naciqi member and former president of a regional accreditor, said the committee’s hearing process is important because it delves into areas that department staff members are unable to ask about.
“If there was no hearing, and just a report,” he said, “more mischief could be done.”