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Betsy DeVos reinstates controversial gatekeeper of for-profit colleges

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Wednesday restored federal recognition to a controversial agency that accredits for-profit colleges. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Wednesday restored federal recognition to a controversial agency that accredits for-profit colleges, reversing an Obama administration decision to put it out of business.

The move is one in a number of steps DeVos has taken to undo an Obama-era crackdown that she argues unfairly targeted for-profit schools for scrutiny not applied to other colleges. But critics say she is propping up an industry with a record of misleading students and poor educational outcomes.

Former Obama administration officials predicted Wednesday that DeVos’s decision will be challenged in court.

In December 2016, the Obama administration ruled that the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, known as ACICS, should no longer be allowed to serve as a gatekeeper between colleges and billions of dollars in federal financial aid. It concluded that the agency was incapable of rectifying years of lax oversight and “exhibited a profound lack of compliance” with the “most basic” responsibilities of an accreditor.

But in March, a federal judge ordered DeVos to reconsider that decision, finding that the Obama staff had failed to review thousands of pages of evidence.

A senior Education Department official, Diane Auer Jones, reviewed the record and in September recommended that DeVos reinstate ACICS. She found that the council was out of compliance with two of 21 criteria but recommended it be given a year to fix those problems. She also recommended monitoring in a handful of other areas.

DeVos agreed and in her decision characterized the Education Department under Obama as having ignored or mischaracterized relevant evidence when ruling that the accrediting agency be removed from the student loan program. DeVos said the decision reached by former Education Secretary John B. King Jr. suffered from “circular reasoning” and “a desire to achieve a preordained result.”

King declined to comment.

In her recommendation, Jones found that ACICS has been asked to make changes and had done so. For instance, it was asked to better monitor job placement by the colleges it accredited, and it implemented a sophisticated system, she said. She also said the prior administration had imposed a double standard — tolerating other accreditors’ failure to catch problems but not this one’s.

And she said the prior administration cited investigations and lawsuits targeting ACICS but not final judgments.

DeVos’s decision was delivered Wednesday to the accreditor. ACICS President Michelle Edwards replied she is gratified by the move and “eager to move forward and commit all of our energy to reinvigorating and strengthening the organization for a strong future.”

Critics blasted the DeVos decision as evidence she is beholden to the for-profit college industry. They noted that ACICS remains out of compliance with two standards — one deals with whether the agency employs qualified and competent people; the second regards controls against conflicts of interest.

Others pointed to a staff report this year evaluating an application from ACICS for reinstatement by the Education Department, filed after it lost its original standing. That report found the agency failed to meet most standards.

A senior Education Department official said that report was preliminary and would have been modified after more information was gathered. But former Obama administration officials say it is evidence their decision was the right one.

“Betsy DeVos has ignored her career staff’s 57 findings of ACICS’s noncompliance and her Thanksgiving gift to American taxpayers is to rubber stamp an accreditor that has been the gatekeeper of billions of federal dollars to predatory colleges without meaningful oversight,” said Aaron Ament, a former Obama administration official who is president of the National Student Legal Defense Network, which has filed lawsuits regarding the ACICS decision.

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel contributed to this report.