For-Profit Colleges’ Status at Risk as Panel Vets Accreditor

  • Education Department seeks termination of accreditor ACICS
  • Decision would affect about 70 schools, 50,000 students

A federal watchdog will vote Thursday on calls from the Education Department to yank approval from an accreditor that oversaw the collapse of several national for-profit college chains.

The accreditor, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, or ACICS, oversaw two defunct chains — Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute — that closed and left the federal government on the hook for tens of millions in canceled student loans.

College accreditors are in charge of monitoring college quality and are the gatekeepers for federal student aid such as grants and loans. Millions of dollars in revenue are at stake for college programs that haven’t found approval elsewhere amid intense scrutiny of ACICS.

The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, the federal board that monitors college accreditors, will weigh four separate reviews from career Education Department officials that recommend ACICS’s termination before making its own recommendation.

President Joe Biden promised a return to tougher oversight of poor-quality college programs, especially in the for-profit sector. The vote Thursday is an initial step in a process that critics of ACICS say will show the Biden administration’s commitment to accountability in higher education.

Education Officials Urge Termination of For-Profit Accreditor

Photo: Susan Goldman/Bloomberg News
A campus of ITT Technical Institute, a school once overseen by ACICS, in Anaheim, Calif.

“If the Biden administration does decide to withdraw recognition from ACICS, it will be an indication they are not prepared to play games,” said Clare McCann, deputy director of higher education policy at the think tank New America and a former department official.

ACICS didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Smaller Footprint

As recently as 2016, ACICS oversaw more than 725 institutions enrolling 400,000 students. It now accredits roughly 70 schools enrolling 50,000 students. That reflects the collapse of national chains such as Corinthian and ITT Tech, as well as other colleges’ scramble to get approved by alternate accreditors in recent years.

If ACICS lost federal approval, those schools would lose access to federal aid within 18 months.

After the National Advisory Committee’s board makes its recommendation, a designated Education Department official will issue their own decision. If ACICS appeals — all but a certainty if it faces termination — Education Secretary Miguel Cardona will make the final decision.

The Obama administration revoked ACICS’ status in 2016. That action was blocked by a federal judge and then reversed by former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Since then, another for-profit chain overseen by the agency, Education Corporation of America, abruptly closed.

A year later, a USA Today report found an ACICS-approved school in South Dakota with no students or faculty. Multiple reviews by Education Department officials determined the accreditor has failed to come into compliance with federal standards.

“The message that is sent here is really important to the quality assurance system overall,” said Antoinette Flores, managing director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at akreighbaum@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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