In the fall of 2020, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi named me to join seventeen others on a federal advisory committee overseeing college accreditation. Formally labeled the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, NACIQI (nah-SEE-key) is supposed to advise the U.S. secretary of education about whether college accrediting agencies—nominally private entities that, when officially recognized by the U.S. secretary of education, serve as a college’s gateway to federal financial aid—are doing an adequate job.

The backgrounds and perspectives of my fellow NACIQI members vary widely. There are college lobbyists, university presidents, and college owners; retirees, consultants, and viewpoints from the political left and right. In other words, the eighteen of us are all over the map. With such a diverse committee, representing many different stakeholders across higher education, coming to a majority decision on whether an agency is good enough—without any option for individuals to condition the answer with recommendations on how they could improve—has been difficult. But there is one thing most of us seem to be in agreement on: our different points of view about our very purpose make for lengthy meetings that so far have been unclear, awkward, often confusing, and enormously frustrating.

A core cause of our discomfort is that the nature of NACIQI’s membership has been misunderstood from the very start, causing it to be placed into the wrong legal category of federal advisory committee. That mistake led to overly restrictive requirements for how it operates. Re-booting NACIQI as a committee that generates, directly and through public input, multiple perspectives—including those influenced by a member’s employment or professional relationships—would make NACIQI a more functional advisory committee, providing more useful input to the secretary. This transformation requires three changes:

  • Recognize that NACIQI is a committee with varied perspectives. Secretary Miguel Cardona should revise NACIQI’s charter to explicitly acknowledge the value of providing a variety of stakeholder views—some from committee members with potential conflicts of interest—rather than characterize the committee as one of unbiased experts without allegiances or opinions.
  • Utilize a more informative voting process. Rather than simply counting the up or down votes on accreditors, each member should be allowed to provide a fuller, possibly even unique, point of view on them. This change can be implemented by the advisory committee itself.
  •  Invite more interactive discussion. Greater participation by members of the public and members of NACIQI itself should be facilitated by making the process more transparent and by releasing data and documents in a more timely manner. This change requires leadership from Department of Education staff.

These improvements to the process are achievable without the need for any congressional action or any lengthy regulatory process. The changes could and should be implemented by the time of the summer 2022 NACIQI meeting.

By revising the committee’s operations in a way that embraces our differences, the committee could be a constructive force in advancing discussions of higher education quality.

Each of these three recommendations are explained below, after some historical context.

Background on the Role of Accreditation in Federal Financial Aid

The first GI Bill was a major accomplishment, opening the doors to higher education for soldiers returning from World War II and thereby helping to establish a strong middle class. But at the same time, the minimal strings attached to this massive voucher program opened up the floodgates to poor quality and fraudulent money grabs, mostly by colleges that were established as for-profit entities. Scrambling to respond to the scandals exposed by reporters and in congressional hearings, the Veterans Administration used a list of accrediting agencies maintained by the Office of Education at the Department of Health and Welfare as a screen for college quality for schools to be eligible under the GI Bill. For-profit schools of the era had not bothered to set up any accrediting system, because until then they had not needed one in order to access federal aid. So, during the 1950s, the scandals were minimal as the GI Bill flowed primarily to students that had enrolled at colleges that had sought accreditation for the right reason—because they cared about quality—rather than colleges that viewed accreditation as their meal ticket.

The list of federally recognized accreditors evolved over time, as Congress increasingly relied on them as gatekeepers of higher education quality in the 1960s and 1970s for new grant and loan programs for civilians established by the Higher Education Act. Parallel to that, trade associations of for-profit colleges established their own accrediting agencies to take advantage of the programs, mimicking the procedures—albeit often not the quality or integrity—of the accrediting agencies that had preceded the federal connection. The requirement of accreditation did not fully prevent repeating scandals in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, but they at least reduced the quantity of questionable college operators that were taking advantage of federal aid.

Over time, a second important role of accreditation emerged. As federal aid grew, so too did the danger that higher education might become captive to political control at the federal level. For traditional higher education, relying on accreditors to determine which schools would be eligible to receive federal aid served as a buffer against politicized national control of higher education. One need only look at recent events in Hungary and Poland to recognize that control of colleges is a frequent power play by ideological political leaders. The relative independence of U.S. higher education from politicians and from profiteers, made possible by the corporate independence of nonprofit universities, has been a primary cause of our colleges’ unparalleled excellence on the world stage. (Political battles for control of U.S. higher education do happen, but they are sporadic and limited to public institutions in particular states; any threat of national control is distant.) The use of accreditation in U.S. higher education helped foster this culture of free and creative inquiry and expression.

Until 1992, reviewing and approving the list of recognized accreditors was an informal process internal to the U.S. Department of Education. Amendments to the Higher Education Act—made through reauthorization in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008—changed that, creating a more formalized process for the secretary of education to approve, renew, or deny an accreditor’s application for federal recognition. An advisory committee, NACIQI, was inserted into the process to add some public process and oversight, and the committee was reformulated to include appointees by both parties in Congress in addition to those appointed by the secretary. In addition, the terms of NACIQI members were staggered so that the committee would not necessarily change much with the start of a new administration.

Recognizing That NACIQI Has Varied Perspectives

In chartering the first NACIQI, the Department of Education staff had to decide which type of committee it would be. Under the guidance for chartering federal advisory committees, agencies must categorize external advisors either as independent experts, or as people who represent the perspectives of various elements of an industry.

A useful and timely example of an expert committee is the one that makes recommendations to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding the efficacy and safety of the COVID-19 vaccines. To assure that this advice to the FDA is sound and to improve public confidence in the process and ultimate decision, the scientific qualifications and ethics of the members of the advisory committee is paramount. The same goes for advisory committees that various agencies have established on aircraft safety, environmental protection, mental health, and numerous other topics on which federal agencies seek expert input.

These expert committee members are enlisted as a category known as special government employees (SGEs). Their work is explicitly for the government, and their role is to provide advice that is in the best interests of the nation. They are explicitly not to be tainted by ties to any particular interest group. To ensure that this freedom from conflicts of interest is achieved, as federal employees, the committee members are generally subject to the same ethics laws as are other federal employees.

An advisory committee of representatives is different, but also legitimate. It is intended to include people with agendas, people who may come with a bias of sorts, and even people who have a financial interest in the outcome of a decision. For example, energy company executives who are convened regularly to provide their perspective on efforts to combat climate change. Or the FDIC advisory committee seeking industry input regarding efforts to prevent the collapse of major companies integral to the economy.

In implementing the Higher Education Act, Department of Education officials had to decide, before anyone was appointed, which type of advisory committee to establish, one of experts or one of representatives. The wording of the law can be interpreted to endorse the appointment of either type of member. On the one hand, it calls for people who are “representatives of . . . all sectors and types of institutions of higher education.” That strongly suggests a committee of people who may well have financial ties to the industry. On the other hand, the law calls for members to be chosen, in part, on the basis of their “integrity, impartiality, and good judgment,” perhaps suggesting they should be experts without any ties to the industry.

While the law is vague, department officials wrote into the committee’s charter that its members would serve as SGEs, pegging them as experts rather than representatives. This decision turned out to be the wrong choice, at least given the way the committee membership has evolved. While congressional and department officials making the appointments could have chosen people without a professional or financial stake in higher education policy discussions, those who have been actually appointed in recent years are well-informed but agenda-driven people who are active in higher education policy. It is a mistake to pretend we are dispassionate experts like the vaccine scientists, from which a numerical vote would yield a meaningful result.

As a result of the expert-committee categorization, members of NACIQI typically must recuse themselves from discussions and votes about agencies that accredit their colleges or that are somehow connected to their professional interests in other ways. At first blush, that seems like it makes sense. But consider what is going to happen, for example, when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) comes up for review this summer. A third or so of the members of NACIQI will have to recuse themselves. One of those is the president of an HBCU. I for one want to hear her perspective on how SACSCOC has treated HBCUs, which have tended to be sanctioned frequently by the agency. I would rather have her involved in the discussion with the knowledge that she has an interest in the outcome than to be denied her considerable experience and knowledge.

Changing NACIQI from an expert committee to a representative committee would allow us to have our discussions and air all of the issues with full knowledge of everyone’s interests and biases. The vote of NACIQI has no actual bearing on the process of recognizing the accreditor, so the secretary of education and Department of Education staff are able to take or reject any information they want in making their recognition decision.

The time and effort spent by Department of Education lawyers to analyze potential conflicts on NACIQI are a waste of their time and a waste of our time, and they put an unnecessary straitjacket on our proceedings. Transitioning from an expert committee to a perspectives advisory committee would solve that problem, allowing for more free-flowing and informed discussion without the need to micromanage real or imaginary conflicts of interest.

Utilizing a More Informative Voting Process

Allowing people with explicit financial conflicts of interest to participate in the NACIQI discussions and votes will cause some to worry that NACIQI’s counsel will be compromised by self-interest. To address this concern, NACIQI should make the “vote” on a motion regarding an agency a more individualized commentary on the agency. Each member could supply a paragraph or two of thoughts about an agency and what action they suggest the Department of Education take on the agency’s application and include a statement about apparent conflicts of interest. Some members may group themselves together for a comment, or a member may concur partly or fully with another member. Combined, the perspectives would be available to the department to consider.

This more informative approach to voting makes sense when you consider the fact that the numerical outcome of a NACIQI vote on an agency has no substantive or procedural effect whatsoever on what happens or can happen with an agency’s application after the NACIQI meeting. There is no need for the department to obsess about the ultimate vote count or about who is or is not allowed to vote. The vote count does not determine the outcome: whatever the vote is, the department takes it under advisement but still has the full range of options available. What does matter are the data and impressions that emerge from the NACIQI process—information that is more likely to emerge in a less awkwardly constrained process.

Furthermore, members may have differing yet equally legitimate perspectives about what should be a priority for the department. Some members may want simply to review the logic behind the technical views or conclusions in the department staff’s analysis of an accreditor. Other members may consider the committee’s sense of the honesty and integrity of the people who run an agency to be paramount. Committee members may not ever all agree on what is most important in accreditor recognition, or what level of emphasis to place on, for example, consumer protection or academic freedom or other important principles. But being on the advisory committee gives each of us a perch for raising such concerns. Allowing for more flexibility and explanation in the voting process gives the department the full benefit of the experience and concerns of committee members, without constraining anyone.

Inviting More Participation by the Public and Committee Members

The process of reviewing an agency’s federal recognition begins twenty-four months prior to the date when the agency’s current recognition expires. As currently managed, twenty-three of those months pass without communication to NACIQI. A flood of documents then appears thirty days before the scheduled NACIQI meeting, and committee members are then faced with poring through (or not) the thousands of pages of documents, or at least the staff summaries, to determine if we have concerns or questions.

If committee members do have concerns or questions, we bring them up at the meeting where, on the spot, the agency is expected to respond with no time to prepare. This process is unfair to committee members, because we are placed in the position of raising an important concern in a way that seems last-minute, but which could have been raised weeks or even months earlier if there had been a process for doing so. Further, the process is unfair to the agency representatives, because they have no time to prepare a thoughtful response.

The Department of Education staff do have interactions with the accrediting agencies during those prior twenty-three months. However, committee members have no process for engaging with the agency, and the department staff are told to keep their communication with us to a minimum because committee members are supposed to be independent experts (again, the problem of being miscategorized) who should not be influenced by the staff.

One solution would be to have some staff who work for NACIQI doing substantive oversight of accreditors. But perhaps also the change in committee type can open up the lines of communication so that the staff, agencies, and NACIQI can raise issues earlier, allowing for more complete and robust analysis.

Wider public input into the process could also be facilitated. Currently, about a year before an agency appears before NACIQI, a notice is posted in the Federal Register requesting public comment. But oddly, the request is not accompanied by any pertinent information about the review. The department should include, with those notices, a copy of the application material submitted by the agency, along with the agency’s accreditor dashboard data. That way, NACIQI members and the public have some context and substance on which to base their input.

The dump of all documents related to the agency to be reviewed thirty days before the NACIQI meeting is the epitome of bureaucratic procedure: the regulations say the documents should be made available “not less than” thirty days before, so the agency holds everything back until the very last minute, making review of the documents as difficult as possible for those of us who want to do a good job as committee members or as public participants.

The advantage of more timely and complete release of documents and data for review is that the most important question about accreditation—Is the agency effective?—can be more fully vetted: While reviews by Department of Education staff are thorough, their scope is limited by the regulatory framework, resulting in box-checking of narrow issues that do not get at the larger issues of integrity and trust and quality. The essential question—Is the country better off with this accreditor being recognized?—is not considered in the type of review done by the staff, but is exactly the type of judgment that can be advocated by NACIQI and public reviewers.

Toward a Better NACIQI

The Department of Education needs to reconsider NACIQI and its role in the review process. We should use the advisory committee process as a foundation on which to build a watchtower aimed at holding accreditors accountable for college quality, for ensuring the best possible education for students who use federal aid. The department lawyers have insisted that there are no legal limits on what NACIQI can discuss, so department staff should help committee members identify questions early in the review process, even if neither they nor we can see, immediately, how the topic might be actionable according to regulations.

The Department of Education can help us, as advisors to the agency, to point to data and to topics, in a more timely way, that bear on the responsibilities of accrediting agencies, ultimately affecting student success and higher education excellence.