Federal Panel Reviewing Accreditors Could Split Along Party Lines

Congress and the U.S. Department of Education have finally finished nominating all 18 members of a panel that reviews accrediting groups. And the stark divisions among those named to the panel does not bode well for a unified or harmonious approach to its task when it begins meeting again this year after a two-year hiatus.

The panel, called the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, or Naciqi, is charged with advising the secretary of education on whether to approve an accreditor as a gatekeeper of federal education money. Colleges must have the approval of a federally recognized accreditor in order for its students to receive federal financial aid.

Congress overhauled Naciqi in its 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, increasing its membership from 15 to 18. The law also changed how members would be chosen: Instead of having the Education Department name all the members, six are now appointed by the U.S. House of Representatives and six by the Senate, with Democrats and Republicans picking the same number in each chamber, and six members are named by the department.

The changes were meant in part to make Naciqi more ideologically balanced, after years of clashes with institutions and accreditors who accused the panel of following the conservative political leanings of the Bush administration and the education secretary at the time, Margaret Spellings.

But under the new system for selecting the panel’s members, ideological balance could easily lead to the kind of partisan gridlock that has plagued Congress since the 2008 elections.

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