February 3, 2023
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.
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.