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Betsy DeVos to reconsider the fate of ousted for-profit college accreditor

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies to the House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee on March 20 on Capitol Hill. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Tuesday evening that she will consider reinstating the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, following a court ruling in favor of the controversial higher education accrediting agency.

A federal judge last month ordered the secretary to review a 2016 petition by the Accrediting Council seeking federal recognition to serve 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. But the judge called the decision process flawed for failing to consider relevant evidence.

Education secretary ousts one of the nation’s largest college accreditors from its oversight role

Even though the judge rejected the Accrediting Council’s request to reverse its termination, DeVos has temporarily restored its status as a federally recognized agency pending her final decision. That will give any schools still accredited by the agency more time to find another accreditor, though the vast majority have already. The Education Department’s blessing allows accrediting agencies to oversee the quality and standards of the nation’s colleges.

“As the court ordered, we will fairly consider all of the facts presented and make an appropriate determination on ACICS’s petition,” DeVos said, in a statement Tuesday night.

DeVos has asked the Accrediting Council to submit any additional evidence in support of its case by May 30, promising that a senior department official will respond on or before July 30.

“We were gratified by the court’s ruling … and we appreciate the timely response by the department, reinstating our recognition and outlining the next steps in the compliance review process,” said Michelle Edwards, president and chief executive of the Accrediting Council. “The department’s decision ensures that students currently attending ACICS schools are not negatively impacted pending the ongoing review process.”

Ousted college accreditor wants another chance, but will DeVos agree?

Edwards had filed a formal petition in October asking for the Accrediting Council to be included on the spring meeting agenda of an independent advisory board that oversees higher education accrediting bodies for the Education Department. She was successful in her bid to have the accreditor’s status reviewed by the board, but in light of the ruling the Accrediting Council can now skip that step altogether.

“It is clear from the available record that [the Accrediting Council] cannot be trusted as a conduit for federal taxpayer dollars,” said Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank. “Yet Betsy DeVos seems intent on approving the agency no matter what the record indicates.”

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 Century Foundation sued the Education Department in February seeking the release of records on the Accrediting Council. In the documents released to the think tank, the accreditor 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.

“In the last two years, ACICS has implemented significant reforms designed to address concerns, strengthen the accreditation process and, ultimately, enhance our ability to hold schools accountable for meaningful student outcomes,” Edwards said. “These efforts are comprehensive and ongoing.”

Days might be numbered for one of the nation’s largest college accreditors

But consumer advocates argue that those changes are too little too late. What’s more, they say the Obama administration presented a clear cut case against keeping the Accrediting Council in the fold. The administration said the council failed to meet 20 criteria used in making a recommendation for recognition, including an ability to monitor high-risk schools, ensure the accuracy of graduation rates and enforce actions against troubled schools.

“Why on Earth should an agency that’s proven its consistently incapable of guarding taxpayer dollars and serving students well be able to grant a single penny of federal financial aid? ” said Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.