Education Department Recommends Troubled College Accreditor’s Recognition Be Revoked

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After weeks of urging from lawmakers, consumer advocates, and others, staff with the Department of Education recommended the termination of federal recognition for the accrediting body that ignored red flags at failed for-profit educator Corinthian Colleges and allowed billions in federal aid to go to schools under investigation.

The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) is the accrediting body for a number of the country’s for-profit colleges, but an Education Dept. staff report found “extensive and pervasive” deficiencies” at ACICS, so the regular has recommended to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) that it terminate the organization’s federal recognition.

“The staff recommendation is to withdraw recognition, which would mean the agency could not remedy its compliance issues,” the report states.

The decision will be discussed before a federal advisory body next week and represents the first step in what could ultimately remove the agency from federal financial aid programs.

Over its history, ACICS has accredited 725 different institutions, and currently accredits 243 institutions, according to a previous report from the Center for American Progress. Most of these schools are for-profit colleges.

Without this accreditation, schools cannot receive federal student grants and loans.

CAP’s report [PDF] found that 17 institutions, campuses, or corporate entities under investigation by the federal or state government received accreditation from ACICS, taking in more than $5.7 billion in federal funds over the past three years.

When compared to campuses receiving accreditation from the top five national companies, ACICS’s institutions have the worst graduation rates, the lowest rate of students repaying their student loans, and the second-worst student loan default rates.

According to the DOE’s staff report, ACICS does not appear to meet the requirements for criteria for recognition. In all, the staff found that, among other things, ACICS has failed to:

• Address how well graduates of its institutions succeed on those licensing exams that are required for employment, especially by using data specific to each licensing exam.

• Provide documentation of continued positive relationships with state licensing-related entities and nurse accrediting agencies, especially by providing current documents.

• Document how its revised training program for all volunteers provides more focus on consistently recognizing problems and questionable practices at institutions, particularly concerning student achievement.

• Clarify and document its entire process for the recruitment, selection, and verification of the qualifications and experience possessed by those selected to serve on the agency’s evaluation teams and decision-making bodies.

• Sufficiently respond to a documentation request regarding enforcement.

The DOE staff report is just the first step in the process of reviewing ACICS’s government recognition.

The Department’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), which is set to meet next week, will also make a recommendation regarding ACICS’s future.

The ultimate decision on ACICS’s status will be left up to a senior official at the DOE. Once this official receives the staff and NACIQI recommendations, they will have 90 days to review and make a decision.

The DOE’s recommendation is “welcome news,” Suzanne Martindale, staff attorney for Consumers Union, tells Consumerist.

“Terminating ACICS is long overdue,” she says. “For all too long, ACICS rubber-stamped Corinthian and other troubling schools for approval, even as evidence mounted that these schools were putting students into debt without providing them the education or training they promised, not to mention any meaningful chance at a lucrative career upon graduation.”

Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at CAP, echoed those sentiments, noting that the recommendation is a “monumental step to protect students and taxpayers.”

“ACICS’ abuse of the public trust for years could not—and must not—go unpunished. This decision sends a strong and unambiguous signal that accreditation must do a better job acting as a gatekeeper to federal funds,” he said in a statement.

If the DOE decides to revoke ACICS’s status, the 243 schools that have received its accreditation will have 18 months to find a new accreditor and remain eligible for federal student aid, the DOE said in a FAQ post Wednesday.

In the case that a school can not find another accreditor, students would no longer be able to use their federal aid at those schools.

“Students who want to continue their education using federal loans or grants past that point would need to transfer,” the DOE says. “Schools also need to have a plan in place to inform students about their options so students are not left scrambling.”

Issues for ACICS came to head in the past several weeks.

Last week, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren published a report related to the DOE’s accreditation practices and the failures of ACICS. Warren urged the Dept. of Education to take “strong, aggressive” action against the accreditor, pointing to ACICS’s “dismal record of failure,” including its repeated accreditation of schools operated by the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges Inc., in spite of evidence of obvious shortcomings and problems at these colleges.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris also sent a letter to the Department of Education earlier this month urging it to revoke federal approval from ACICS.

With the letter, Harris expressed support for 13 other state Attorneys General who previously voiced their concerns over the renewal of ACICS as an accreditation agency.

Following the collapse of CCI last year, lawmakers opened an inquiry into how to improve the oversight of agencies that one might assume provide an indicator as to whether or not a particular school has met high standards for education and financial security. It’s unclear how that inquiry has progressed.

The committee’s inquiry came just weeks after the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau requested documents from ACICS related to its accreditation of for-profit colleges.

The Bureau’s request was part of its investigating into possible “unlawful acts and practices in connection with accrediting for-profit colleges,” according to Inside Higher Ed.”

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