The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Education Dept. drops embattled for-profit college accreditor

The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools had previously lost recognition in 2016 but was later reinstated

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The Education Department is withdrawing its recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, barring the controversial agency from serving as a gatekeeper between colleges and billions of dollars in federal financial aid.

Accrediting agencies are little-known but powerful organizations the Education Department relies on to determine whether colleges are worthy to participate in the federal student aid program. If a college lacks an accreditor’s seal of approval, its students cannot obtain the federal education loans that are the lifeblood of many schools.

In a decision issued Wednesday, Jordan Matsudaira, the deputy undersecretary for education, concurred with career department staffers and an independent advisory board in deeming the accreditation agency unfit. He said the oversight body, commonly known as ACICS, is incapable of rectifying administrative failures within a year and meeting federal standards.

Federal advisory board votes to drop controversial for-profit college accreditor

“ACICS’s significant and systemic non-compliance with multiple regulatory recognition criteria leaves me no reasonable option but to terminate its recognition, effective immediately,” Matsudaira wrote in a letter to the council.

Accrediting Council President Michelle Edwards said the agency will appeal the decision to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. If the appeal fails, about 60 schools would have to find another accreditor.

“We have worked too hard over the past five years to strengthen our organization, our accountability, our procedures and accreditation criteria not to fight this decision,” Edwards said.

She continued: “All that we ask is that a decision regarding our continued recognition be driven by the improvements we have made and our effectiveness as an accreditor today, not by policy priorities and outside pressure from political activists.”

Advocacy groups, liberal lawmakers and state attorneys general have accused the ACICS of letting schools under investigation for fraud or with rock-bottom graduation rates receive millions of dollars in federal loans and grants, putting students and taxpayers at risk.

This is the second time the council has lost the recognition to operate. In 2016, the Obama administration withdrew its support of the accreditor. However, the Trump administration gave the oversight body another chance with the understanding that it would rectify outstanding problems.

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

Career staffers at the Education Department concluded in January that the ACICS had done a poor job of training employees to conduct site visits, failed to address conflicts of interest and lacked the finances to sustain itself in the long term. Months later, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity in an 11-to-1 vote recommended the council be stripped of its authority.

The council has come under fire for extending its seal of approval to institutions such as Reagan National University, a school in South Dakota that had no students, faculty or classrooms, a USA Today investigation revealed last year. The university voluntarily surrendered its accreditation in February 2020.

Another council-accredited school, Fairfax University of America, 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. Education Department staffers questioned why the ACICS had failed to step up before state regulators intervened.

The council gained notoriety for allowing for-profit school chains Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute to remain accredited despite widespread findings of fraud. The Obama administration revoked the council’s recognition in 2016 following the collapse of those chains.

In March, the Education Department’s inspector general said the Obama administration failed to consider all relevant information in its review of the council. The watchdog said political appointees interfered with career staffers’ review of the council, but staff members said the effort had no bearing on their decision. While the inspector general raised concerns about the process of the review, the office did not question the staff’s findings.