District Attorney General Karl Racine, center, is a part of a motion to intervene in a lawsuit involving one of the nation’s largest accreditation agencies. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

A group of six state attorneys general, including Maryland and the District’s top prosecutors, want to stop one of the largest national accreditation agencies from resuming its job as the gatekeeper between colleges and billions of dollars in federal financial aid.

On Tuesday, the coalition of attorneys general filed a motion to intervene in a federal-district court case involving the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, which is suing the Education Department for being kicked out of the student aid program. The department and an independent advisory board deemed the council incapable of rectifying years of lax oversight of troubled for-profit colleges. Although a federal judge rejected the council’s bid for a temporary restraining order, the court has granted a preliminary injunction hearing on Feb. 1.

“Because of ACICS’s poor accreditation practices, thousands of Maryland students are left with worthless degrees and exorbitant levels of debt due to the deceptive practices of schools accredited by ACICS,” said Christine Tobar, a spokesperson in the office of Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh. “Intervening in the case to support the U.S. Department of Education’s decision to rescind its recognition of ACICS would protect Maryland students from further harm.”

Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Maine and the District are taking part in the case to defend state interests in the governing of schools that operate within their borders, according to the motion. All of them have institutions that are accredited by the council in their jurisdictions, giving each a stake in the outcome of the lawsuit.

“An accreditor’s failure to verify program quality at its accredited educational institutions jeopardizes the effectiveness of state enforcement efforts and regulations, exposing each state’s students to subpar educational programs that provide little value, but for which each student may borrow tens of thousands of dollars through effectively non-dischargeable federal student loans,” the attorneys wrote in the motion.

Robert Marus, a spokesperson for District Attorney General Karl A. Racine, said his office seeks to “protect the interests of consumers, students and other everyday District residents in an environment where some long-standing federal protections may disappear.”

Even if the court sides against the council, the Trump administration could reverse the decision. The new administration could also chose not defend the case in court if the council is successful in getting an injunction.

The future of nearly 300 colleges with 600,000 students is at stake. Those schools have less than 18 months to find a new accreditor to prevent students from losing access to government loans and grants. Other accreditation agencies might reject colleges accredited by the council, such as the Art Institutes, which would be the death knell for some. Even if council schools are able to find an accreditor willing to work with them, getting approval could be a long and arduous process.

Trouble came to a head for the council after it claimed that Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit chain that state and federal authorities said committed fraud, was in good enough standing to get billions of dollars in taxpayer funds. The accrediting agency said that many of the former Corinthian schools under its auspices were sold to ECMC Group in a $24 million deal blessed by the Obama administration.

Some consumer groups, lawmakers and state attorneys general say the accrediting agency lets schools accused of fraud or with abysmal graduation rates receive millions of dollars in federal loans and grants, despite the risks to students and taxpayers.

In response to the criticism, the council has increased the frequency of its on-site evaluations, removed board members with conflicts of interest, brought in new leadership and stepped up enforcement actions. Its threat to revoke the accreditation of ITT Technical Institute set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led the for-profit schools to shut down. But the council’s efforts have not quelled objections to its participation in the federal student aid program.

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