Education Dept. staff recommends dropping embattled for-profit-college accreditor backed by DeVos

A controversial accreditation agency backed by former education secretary Betsy DeVos may soon be stripped of its power to act as the gatekeeper for billions of dollars of federal financial aid.

Career staffers at the Education Department are recommending that the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, or ACICS, lose the federal recognition needed to operate. In a report made public Friday, staffers concluded that the oversight body, which mostly accredits for-profit colleges, had failed to meet federal standards.

“The agency failed to demonstrate that it has competent and knowledgeable individuals, qualified by education and experience in their own right and trained by the agency on their responsibilities, as appropriate for their roles, regarding the agency’s standards, policies, and procedures,” the report said.

An independent advisory board will take the recommendation into consideration when it convenes next month to decide the council’s fate. The Trump administration had delayed the evaluation, even as the Education Department launched new inquiries into problems at the accrediting agency.

The ACICS did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

If the advisory board votes that the government should withdraw its recognition and that decision is upheld by a senior department official, the accrediting agency can then appeal to the secretary. If the secretary denies the appeal, about 73 schools will have 18 months to find a new accreditation agency to continue receiving federal financial aid.

“Revoking ACICS’s recognition will protect students across the country,” said Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education Committee. “When predatory institutions are given the legitimacy of accreditation, they use it to collect billions of dollars in federal student aid while denying students the education they deserve.”

The federal government relies on accreditors, little-known but powerful organizations, to deem colleges worthy to participate in the federal student aid program. If an institution does not have an accreditor’s seal of approval, students of that institution cannot obtain the federal education loans that are the lifeblood of many schools, especially for-profit colleges.

Education secretary ousts one of the nation’s largest college accreditors from its oversight role

The Obama administration had cut ties with the ACICS in 2016 after the collapse of Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute. The for-profit chains had remained accredited by the council, receiving millions of dollars in federal loans and grants despite widespread findings of fraud and rock-bottom graduation rates.

In 2018, DeVos reinstated the council over the objections of her staff, which found the council in violation of dozens of standards. DeVos concluded the accreditor could rectify its problems within a year.

It did not, according to Friday’s report.

Department staffers say the accreditor has done a poor job of training employees to conduct site visits and has failed to show that it addressed conflicts of interest. The deficiencies that plagued the council in 2016 remain, but new issues also have emerged.

The report makes note of the council’s accreditation of Reagan National University, a school in South Dakota that a USA Today investigation last year revealed had no students, faculty or classrooms.

The ACICS approved the for-profit university in 2017 but inquired two years later why none of its graduates appeared to have gotten jobs. It then asked the now-defunct school to “show cause” why it should keep the seal of approval. The university instead voluntarily surrendered its accreditation in February.

Days later, DeVos told a House education appropriations subcommittee that she was “not happy” to read the story and had launched an investigation into the matter. Democratic lawmakers asked how a sham school could remain accredited, especially by a watchdog with a track record of lax oversight.

“It’s a shame it’s taken this long. Meanwhile, they’ve been allowed to steward billions in taxpayer dollars, and remain recognized despite an obvious track record that was clear to everyone except Betsy DeVos,” said Antoinette Flores, an accreditation expert at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress.

At the height of its power, the council was one of the nation’s largest college accreditors, with nearly 300 schools under its watch. Many of those colleges fled to other accreditors when the council lost its recognition in 2016, but some of the most troubled institutions had no path forward until DeVos intervened.

Virginia College students sue DeVos for reinstating controversial for-profit college accreditor

When she granted the council a reprieve, Virginia College was allowed to remain in the federal aid program and prolong what many saw as an inevitable demise. The for-profit chain abruptly closed in December 2018, leaving students with hefty debt burdens and worthless course credits. Former students sued DeVos for reinstating the council without a substantive review, asking the court to void federal loans taken out after their access to student aid would have ended without DeVos’s intervention.

Fairfax University of America, another council-accredited school that was formerly known as Virginia International University, was nearly forced to close in 2019 after a state audit blasted the quality and rigor of its online education program. The State Council of Higher Education of Virginia ultimately reached an agreement allowing the school to remain open if it ceased teaching online for at least three years.

The ACICS’s oversight of Fairfax University, San Diego University for Integrative Studies and Reagan National University is the subject of Education Department investigations.

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