The U.S. Department of Education this week began releasing records on controversial higher education accrediting agencies, relenting in response to a lawsuit filed by a public policy think tank.
Earlier this month, the Century Foundation sued to force the federal government to make public key reports on the American Bar Association and the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. Both are among more than a dozen private accrediting bodies scheduled to undergo a springtime review 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, had asked the public to submit comments concerning the accrediting groups’ performance. The Century Foundation said the department refused to provide information about 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.
On Friday, a federal judge temporarily blocked the Education Department from enforcing its deadline for the public comment period, which was set to end the same day. The order extended the deadline until March 1. Since then, the Education Department has handed over reams of documents to the Century Foundation, which has posted them on its website for public consumption.
“There is still the question of whether the date the deadline was pushed to is appropriate given the volume of documents,” said Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “We’re going through them as quickly as we can, but it remains to be seen whether we can provide an adequate review by the March 1 date for providing comments to the department.”
If that proves impossible, the think tank might take up the issue with the courts, said Shireman, the former deputy undersecretary at the Education Department in the Obama administration.
The case is rooted in whether the American Bar Association and the Accrediting Council have resolved problems identified by an independent advisory board that oversees higher education accrediting bodies for the Education Department.
In June 2016, the advisory board criticized the Bar Association for not implementing standards measuring the quality of education at the law schools it accredits. The committee suspended the Bar Association from accrediting new institutions for a year. The Education Department lifted the ban a few months later on the condition the Bar Association submit a progress report — but that report remained shielded from the public until now.
“It was rather perplexing that the public had been asked to comment on a compliance report that was not provided to us,” Shireman said. “We’re thrilled that we and anybody else have the ability to look at the same things the Department of Education is looking at.”
Barry Currier, who heads accreditation and legal education at the Bar Association, said in a statement the documents in question relate to “several relatively minor and technical concerns” raised by the department as a part of its compliance review. He said the association has submitted the information, which will be reviewed by the accreditation advisory board this spring.
“We look forward to answering their questions and fully complying with any requests,” Currier said, in reference to the upcoming meeting.
The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools is seeking to regain its position as the gatekeeper between colleges and billions of dollars in federal financial aid. The Obama administration stripped the organization of its power in December 2016, after deciding it was incapable of rectifying years of lax oversight.
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.
In the documents released to the Century Foundation, the Accrediting Council details how it made changes to become a better steward of federal taxpayer dollars. The group said it removed board members with conflicts of interest, increased on-site evaluations and beefed up its review of student outcomes. Those changes led Michelle Edwards, the new president and chief executive of the Accrediting Council, to ask the Education Department to reconsider its position in September.
“We have always expected that the scrutiny of our bid for recognition would be intense, as it should be,” Edwards said, in an email to The Washington Post. “We look forward to the opportunity to demonstrate to the department and to the public our effectiveness as an accrediting organization deserving of recognition.”
Public outcry against the Accrediting Council has intensified since the Trump administration agreed in January to consider restoring its accrediting powers. A group of 20 attorneys general, including those from Virginia, Maryland and the District, on Wednesday urged the Education Department to reject the Accrediting Council’s application for reinstatement.
The council “gave a veneer of credibility to predatory and fraudulent for-profit schools that left students and taxpayers saddled with debt instead of employable skills,” Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring said, in a statement. “Given the previous failures that led [the Department of Education] to revoke its recognition, I don’t see any reason that [the council] should be allowed back into the accrediting business.”