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An accreditor that came under scrutiny following the collapse of two college chains is one step closer to termination after a top Education Department official withdrew federal recognition.
Wednesday’s decision means continued access to federal student aid, such as grants and loans, is at risk for roughly 70 colleges that the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools has approved.
The handling of the accreditor may signal how President Joe Biden will handle for-profit colleges. Unlike the rest of higher education, for-profits have grown in enrollment during the coronavirus pandemic, in part as a result of online programs. Biden promised tougher oversight of the for-profit sector during his presidential campaign.
ACICS-accredited schools in particular have come under the microscope in recent years following the collapse of for-profit chains Corinthian Colleges in 2015 and ITT Tech in 2016.
Jordan Matsudaira, the Education Department’s deputy under secretary, wrote that his decision was based on systemic failures by the agency to comply with federal standards. Department staff recommended the accreditor’s termination in four separate reports in January. A federal advisory committee endorsed the recommendation in March.
Michelle Edwards, the president and CEO of ACICS, said the group will appeal the decision to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.
“We have worked too hard over the past five years to strengthen our organization, our accountability, our procedures, and accreditation criteria not to fight this decision,” she said in a statement.
The Education Department is making the second attempt to yank federal recognition from ACICS. The Obama administration tried to scrap the accreditor in 2016. President Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, restored its approval two years later after a federal judge sent the decision back to the department.
The accreditor had become “a rubber stamp for many of America’s most predatory for-profit colleges,” Aaron Ament, president of the National Student Legal Defense Network, said.
ACICS’s Edwards, in her statement, said she believed her organization “is in substantial compliance with any objective, consistent, and reasonable interpretation of the recognition criteria.”
ACICS accredited more than 725 colleges as recently as 2016, and now oversees roughly 70 schools enrolling 50,000 students.
Many colleges have sought recognition elsewhere with the agency’s status in doubt. Accreditors act as the gatekeeper for federal student aid; without it, many colleges would have to close their doors.
It’s unlikely many remaining ACICS schools will find approval from other accreditors, said Michael Itzkowitz, a former Obama education official who’s now a senior fellow at the Third Way think tank.
“A lot of the remaining schools have either already applied to another accreditor and been rejected, or wouldn’t be able to meet the more rigorous standards that many now require anyway,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org