The Century Foundation, a public policy think tank, sued the U.S. Department of Education on Thursday seeking the release of records on controversial higher education accrediting agencies that are linked to lax regulation.
The American Bar Association and the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools are among more than a dozen private accrediting bodies that will undergo a review this spring to decide if they get federal recognition needed to operate. The Education Department, whose blessing allows the organizations to oversee the quality and standards of the nation’s colleges, has asked the public to submit comments concerning the groups’ performance.
But the Century Foundation says the Education Department is refusing to make public key reports from the Bar Association and the Accrediting Council before the end of the comment period, making it difficult for outside analysts to provide an informed assessment.
“By setting an extremely short window for public comment and then rejecting [The Century Foundation’s] request for expedited processing, the Department of Education has effectively rendered the public comment period useless,” said Alex Elson, an attorney at the National Student Legal Defense Network, a nonprofit representing the foundation. “How is [the foundation] supposed to provide informed comment to the department when the most essential materials are actively being kept secret and hidden?”
The Education Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit.
The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, accuses the department of violating the Freedom of Information Act and a provision of the Administrative Procedure Act that prohibits arbitrary and capricious agency actions.
At the heart of the case is whether the American Bar Association and the Accrediting Council have rectified problems previously identified by an independent advisory board within the Education Department that oversees higher education accrediting bodies.
In June 2016, that advisory board admonished the American Bar Association for failing to implement standards measuring the quality of education received by students at the law schools it accredits. The committee took issue with the Bar Association’s audit and analysis of student debt, and suspended the group from accrediting new institutions for a year.
Though the Education Department lifted the suspension in September 2016, it required the Bar Association to submit a progress report that has never been released to the public, according to the complaint. The Bar Association did not immediately respond to request for comment.
The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools became the poster child for dysfunction before the Education Department said in December 2016 it could no longer be the gatekeeper between colleges and billions of dollars in federal financial aid.
The council was rife with conflicts of interest: Many of its commissioners worked as executives at Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute, schools accredited by the agency. It let for-profit colleges under investigation for alleged fraud or with rock-bottom graduation rates receive billions of dollars in federal student aid, including Corinthian, ITT Tech and FastTrain College. All of those schools remained accredited until the day they closed.
The Obama administration said the Accrediting Council was incapable of rectifying years of lax oversight. But the Trump administration agreed in January to reconsider the ruling.
The decision arrived four months after Michelle Edwards, the new president and chief executive of the Accrediting Council, asked the Education Department to be included on the spring meeting agenda of the independent advisory board that had recommended the action against the organization. That way, the organization could be considered for reinstatement. The council did not immediately respond Thursday to requests for comment.
Accrediting Council leaders have said the group has increased on-site evaluations, removed board members with conflicts of interest, brought in new leadership and stepped up enforcement. Its threat to revoke the accreditation of ITT Tech set in motion a chain of events that 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.
The Accrediting Council “has a shameful record as an accreditor. For the department to consider the agency for possible reinstatement, without providing the agency’s application materials, makes a mockery of the public input process,” said Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and former deputy undersecretary at the Education Department under Obama.
Want to read more about college accreditation? Check out: