Disgraced College Accreditor Asks Betsy DeVos For Second Chance

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Last year, the Department of Education revoked federal recognition for the accrediting body that ignored red flags at failed for-profit educator Corinthian Colleges and allowed billions in federal aid dollars to schools under investigation. Now, Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools is back, asking new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for another chance.

ACICS this week revealed its intention to apply for recognition by the Department, noting in a statement that its has taken steps to right its wrongs and overhaul its organization structure.

What Is Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools?

ACICS was the accrediting body for a number of the country’s for-profit colleges.

Over its history, ACICS has accredited 725 different institutions, and accredited 243 institutions at the time its recognition was revoked in 2016, according to a report from the Center for American Progress (CAP). Most of these schools are for-profit colleges.

Without this accreditation from organizations like ACICS, schools cannot receive federal student grants and loans.

ACICS came under increased scrutiny after the collapse of Corinthian Colleges in 2015, with regulators asking how the accreditor missed apparently obvious red flags. If ACICS had pulled CCI’s accreditation, it could have stopped billions in federal aid money going to those schools.

A subsequent report [PDF] from CAP 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 had the worst graduation rates, the lowest rate of students repaying their student loans, and the second-worst student loan default rates.

How Did We Get Here?

The issues for ACICS came to a head in early 2016 when lawmakers began raising concerns about the accreditor.

In June, California Attorney General Kamala Harris sent a letter to the Dept. 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.

Next, Sen. Elizabeth Warren published a report related to the Dept.’s accreditation practices and the failures of ACICS. The lawmaker urged the Dept. to take “strong, aggressive” action against the accreditor, pointing to ACICS’s “dismal record of failure.”

Also in June 2016, Education Dept. staff and an advisory panel each voted in favor of revoking ACICS’s accreditation.

The Dept. of Education’s staff report found numerous issues on ACICS’ part, including failure to address how well graduates of its accredited institutions succeed on licensing exams, failure to provide documentation of schools’ relationship with licensing related entities, and failure to 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.

ACICS attempted to show it had changed its way in Aug. 2016, when it revoked the accreditation for troubled for-profit operator ITT Technical Institutes. As a result, the Dept. ITT was banned from enrolling new students using federal financial aid. Two weeks later, the college had shut down, leaving nearly 4,000 students scrambling to finish their education or receive federal student loan discharges.

The effort was to no avail, however. The following month, Sept. 2016, a Dept. of Education senior designated official finalized the staff and advisory panel decisions to revoke recognition. The official said the decision was made based on findings that the organization failed to properly monitor and discipline the colleges it oversees.

In a letter [PDF] to ACICS, the Dept. of Education official said she considered ACICS’s petition to keep recognition, as well as reports and transcripts of meetings between the Dept. of Education and the accreditor during its review.

By revoking ACICS’ recognition, the 243 schools that have received accreditation had 18 months to find a new accreditor and remain eligible for federal student aid programs, the Dept. said in a FAQ at the time.

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

A Friendlier Administration

Fast forward nearly a year and a lot has changed: There’s a new administration in charge, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has repeatedly shown that her agency is likely to use a lighter touch when it comes to for-profit colleges, and by extension the organizations that accredit them.

Since taking over the helm at the Dept., DeVos has “reset” rules put in place to hold for-profit colleges more accountable and prevent students at those schools from being left with nothing but debt if their college collapses.

DeVos announced this summer the intention to allow colleges to continue enrolling students in programs that run afoul of federal regulations. The Dept. of Education said it would “reduce the burden on institutions” by revamping the appeals process for colleges when their programs fail to meet the gainful employment standards for employment after graduation.

Just last month, the agency appointed former for-profit college executive Julian Schmoke to run the Department’s enforcement division. While Schmoke currently works as a high-ranking director at a community college in Georgia, he spent several years working for DeVry University, a college that has been repeatedly accused of fraud by both federal and state authorities.

Give Us Another Shot

Amid the seemingly more for-profit friendly administration, ACICS is attempting to get back into the accreditation business, applying for recognition by the department.

Michelle Edwards, president and CEO for ACICS, contends that over the past 14 months, the organization has taken steps to reform its practices.

For instance, she claims that ACICS has adopted new accreditation criteria to improve the accreditation process with an eye on student outcomes; established robust standards overhauling the collecting and verification of data; and strengthened its monitoring approaches to identifying and reporting problems with compliance.

“The ACICS leadership takes our oversight responsibilities to accredited institutions and your students seriously,” Edwards said in a statement.

The organization also appears to be downplaying its past trouble with the Dept. of Education, noting that it made the decision in June 2016 to stop accepting new applications for initial accreditation in order to focus on strengthening is standards.

Edwards also notes that ACICS is still recognized by the the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

ACICS plans to submit a formal petition for recognition as a national accreditor to the Department by Oct. 1, Edwards says, pointing out the organization has already been in talks with the Dept. of Education.

Consumerist has reached out to the Dept. of Education for comment on its discussions with ACICS and its potential for future recognition. We’ll update this post when we hear back.

Not So Fast

Consumer advocates see the possibility of reinstalling ACICS’s recognition as a step backward.

“We can’t go back to the days when accrediting agencies were rubber stamping bad for-profit schools and letting federal dollars flow to failing programs,” Suzanne Martindale, policy analyst for our colleagues at Consumers Union, tells Consumerist.

Martindale says that it would “be very troubling” to see the Dept. rely on ACICS’s promises, given the “enormous risks that could pose to students and our federal aid system.”