The Education Department should terminate recognition of the country’s biggest for-profit college accrediting agency, career officials at the department determined after reviewing a compliance report that revealed the beleaguered agency was not meeting federal standards – a recommendation that’s set to jump-start the Biden administration’s push to curb the career college industry.
The recommendation comes in the wake of former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos loosening federal regulations governing for-profit colleges and their accreditors with the aim of bringing them back into the higher education fold and elevating their status after they had been sidelined by the Obama administration for preying on vulnerable students – in many cases pressuring them into taking out federal and private student loans – lying about employment prospects and expected earnings after graduating, and not being transparent about their financials, which led some of the biggest operators to shutter mid-semester without any warning to students.
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The main charge against the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, also known as ACICS, which currently oversees the accreditation of 73 campuses, is that its employees lack the qualifications necessary to perform the duties of the agency.
“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 career officials concluded in a report.
The findings are not unexpected. Higher education policy experts, almost uniformly, have criticized the sector, and ACICS in particular, for continuing to run afoul of federal standards and failing to be forthcoming about their operations and financials.
The accrediting agency was first found non-compliant with federal standards under the Obama administration in 2016, at which point then-Education Secretary John King revoked its recognition. By the time the court remanded the decision back to the Education Department for a review of additional information, DeVos was education secretary. She reinstated its recognition in November 2018, requesting, as a backstop, compliance reports that addressed outstanding concerns over the qualification of ACICS employees and the agency’s conflicts of interest.
Four years later, the department officials wrote in the new report, ACICS is still unable to prove it’s compliant.
The report also noted that the Education Department received five third-party comments regarding the accrediting agency, including from members of Congress and a veterans’ organization, and that “all the comments reflect negative views regarding ACICS.”
The recommendation solicited cheers from higher education experts and student advocates who relayed an it’s-about-time attitude.
“The recommendation from staff at the Education Department only affirms what too many people have known for too long,” Kyle Southern, policy and advocacy director for higher education and workforce for Young Invincibles, says. “ACICS has failed in its responsibility to ensure its member institutions provide anything close to the quality of education we should expect from any college or university.”
“We welcome this step in the process toward revoking ACICS as an accreditor and putting some of the worst actors in the field of higher education on notice,” he says.
The accrediting agency is set to go before the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity – the federal body that oversees accreditation, among other things – on Feb. 24 and 25 to consider the recommendation to revoke its standing as an accreditor. After that review, Education Department officials will consider the recommendation and issue a final decision.
The report underscores that ACICS is under the spotlight for separate, ongoing issues, including its accreditation of a fake school, Reagan National University, and concluded that the totality of its transgressions should prevent it from receiving additional extensions to prove that it can come into compliance.
“The agency’s noncompliance,” the department officials wrote regarding its lack of adequately trained employees, “provides stand-alone basis for termination even if the agency were found to be in compliance (or substantial compliance) with the other criteria under review at this time. However, the cumulative effect of the noncompliance in those other inquiries and report provides additional support for the sanction of terminations and for the Department’s staff’s conclusions that any further extension to demonstrate compliance is not warranted.”
The recommendation is likely no surprise to ACICS and the industry writ large, as it has been girding itself for a less supportive administration.
In October, Steve Gunderson, then-president of Career Education Colleges and Universities, the trade group that represents for-profit schools, told its members that a Biden-Harris administration would be devastating to the sector and that it needed to begin recruiting “urban members of Congress” – Democrats in particular – to support for-profit schools if they wanted a chance at surviving, as well as to inform them that it had secured a Democratic lobbying firm to help them do so.
Gunderson stepped down in December of last year. Heading the organization now is Jason Altmire, former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania.
The recommendation to terminate the accrediting authority of ACICS – though coming from apolitical career staff who would have published the same conclusion if DeVos were still education secretary – is set to kick-start the Biden administration’s plans to increase scrutiny of a sector the president and vice president have said are a bad bet for the country’s most vulnerable students but one into which the previous administration breathed new life.
Indeed, less than one week after the lights went out on the Trump administration, there are already early signs that DeVos and her higher education officials reached beyond their authority to bolster the for-profit sector. According to Politico, a forthcoming report from the Office of Inspector General is set to accuse a top adviser with flouting rules to help struggling for-profit colleges secure hundreds of millions of dollars of federal aid – an overreach first uncovered by U.S. News.
Biden’s Education Department, once its top-tier officials have been confirmed and hired, are looking to rewrite Trump-era regulations that made it more difficult for students defrauded by for-profits to have their student loans forgiven, among many other things.