Study: Two-thirds of college accreditation commissioners have potential conflicts of interest

Kiran Ramsey | Digital Design Editor

Twenty out of 26 commissioners at the Middle States Commission on Higher Education had ties to colleges under its jurisdiction.

More than two-thirds of the accreditation commissioners, who decide a college or university’s Title IV federal funding eligibility, are employed by the schools they oversee, a recent report found.

The study, published by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, indicated that out of the 332 commissioners and board members serving as “gatekeepers” for federal Title IV funds — including Pell Grants and federal work-study dollars —  67 percent are currently employed by institutions their agencies accredit. Moreover, 20 out of 26 commissioners at the Middle States Commission on Higher Education had ties to colleges under MSCHE’s jurisdiction. The MSCHE accredits Syracuse University and the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

SU Chancellor Kent Syverud has been elected to serve as a commissioner for MSCHE, said Richard Pokrass, director for communications and public relations at MSCHE. His three-year term will begin in 2017.

“We see this as a major conflict of interest,” said Preston Cooper, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the study’s author. “People who work at colleges are going to have a say in what is supposed to be this objective process of deciding whether a college is up to standards.”

Accreditation agencies evaluate colleges and universities to ensure they comply with basic standards of quality and financial stability, according to Cooper’s report. If an institution is not accredited by one of 15 regional and national accreditation agencies recognized by the federal government, they are not eligible to accept any federal funding that might be awarded to their students.

Most accreditation agencies do have conflict of interest policies in place to mitigate any potential problem. MSCHE prohibits accreditors from participating in discussions and decisions regarding schools with which they have financial connections, according to the policy statement on its website.

“Middle States Commission … has always made fair, impartial, and unassailable accreditation decisions,” Pokrass said. “The Commissioners are required each year to complete a Conflict of Interest form and to identify any institutions for which they may have a conflict of interest … When an institution on a Commissioner’s Conflict of Interest list comes before the Commission, that Commissioner is required to recuse himself/herself.”

The problem, as Cooper sees it, is that college administrators may indirectly influence the outcome of their schools’ accreditation processes.

“(These administrators) can design the rules so that their institution is advantaged, they can design the rules to disadvantage the competition … (and) they can trade votes with other commissioners to make sure that their institution sees a favorable assessment by the accreditor,” he said.

The scale of the crossover between accreditors and institutional representatives is another problem, Cooper said.

In particular, Cooper said he was “shocked” at the number of small, two-year colleges with relatively high default rates and low graduation rates that had representatives in their accreditation agencies.

He said of the relationship between these low-performing colleges and their accreditation agencies “does smell very, very funny.”

“This is an issue that I don’t think … has gotten its fair shake … I don’t think anyone’s really quantified just how extensive this problem is,” he said.

He suggested requiring colleges and universities to get a certain percentage of their revenue from private sources as one potential alternative to the accreditation model. Mandating that colleges put up money to defray the cost to the government when students default on their loans could also be another solution, he noted.

Systems such as these would “give colleges some skin in the game” and incentivize them to make sure their students graduated with solid job prospects, he said.

“The best solution would be to move to a college accountability system that’s not based on accreditation,” he said.


Top Stories