An embattled college accreditor that survived multiple rounds of federal scrutiny over three presidential administrations may finally be out of business.
The U.S. Department of Education said Friday it had denied an appeal by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools to maintain its federal status as a university accreditor.
The federal government does not directly accredit universities, but instead relies on accreditation for universities. The Education Department’s decision means roughly two dozen ACICS-approved schools have 18 months to find a new accreditor or lose access to federal financial aid, such as student loans or Pell grants. ACICS primarily accredits for-profit colleges, which typically rely on this type of federal funding to stay afloat.
Cindy Marten, the department’s deputy secretary, made the final decision on ACICS’ appeal, saying the accreditor had not met government standards.
“Department recognition should be reserved for agencies that meet high standards, just as agency accreditation should be reserved for institutions and programs that adhere to high standards.” , Marten said. “Their continued failure to achieve full compliance with this criterion alone is sufficient basis for termination of ACICS recognition.”
The decision could mark the end of ACICS’ long battle with the federal government, which dates back to 2016. That’s when the Obama-era department tried to strip the agency of its recognition, after the closure of two massive for-profit colleges. . Trouble continued to find ACICS: A USA TODAY Network investigation in 2020 revealed that the accreditor had approved Reagan National University, a university in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that had no students or faculty.
The decision comes at a time when the Biden administration has said it would crack down on predatory universities that take federal money and leave taxpayers without lucrative degrees.
Michael Itzkowitz, a senior fellow focused on higher education at the center-left think tank Third Way, praised the decision, though he noted it was overdue.
“Although it shouldn’t have taken this long, the federal bureaucracy has finally run its course,” Itzkowitz said. “This action will save taxpayers billions of dollars that will no longer flow to low-performing institutions, not to mention the hardships students have endured in obtaining a worthless degree from an ACICS institution.”
Students rely on these agencies to “validate that the schools where they spend their time and money will meet a basic level of quality,” said Eric Rothschild, director of litigation at the National Student Legal Defense Network, a watchdog group focused on the responsibility in higher education. .
“It’s great to see the Department take this long overdue action to protect students and taxpayers,” Rothschild said. “We’re talking about an entity that accredited a school that didn’t even exist and continues to brand some of the worst for-profit colleges.”
ACICS used to be one of the largest university accreditors in the country. He supervised 290 institutions and hundreds of thousands of students in 2016, but now only accredits 27 institutions with about 5,000 students, according to the Department of Education. Its institutions received about $110 million in federal aid in the 2020-21 fiscal year.
It also accredited dozens of schools operated by Corinthian Colleges and separately signed the ITT Technical Institute. Both were massive institutions that closed in the mid-2010s with little notice, disrupting the lives of students and costing taxpayers billions. The federal government recently forgave more than $10 billion in student loan debt for students who attended both Corinthian and ITT.
The Obama-era Department of Education stripped the agency of its power in 2016. After a federal court ruling, the Trump-era department under Then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos reinstated the accreditor in 2018.
However, a USA TODAY Network investigation in 2020 found that the accreditor had approved Reagan National University. Links to the university’s website did not work, and reporters could not find evidence that anyone attended or taught courses at the university. ACICS had approved the institution, although it withdrew accreditation just days before the USA TODAY investigation was published.
Following the story, the Department of Education launched an investigation into the group in 2020. In 2021, the federal government again stripped the accreditor of federal recognition. The agency appealed the department’s findings soon after, but the Department of Education took another year to respond. His decision Friday ends the appeals process.
The accreditor could file a legal challenge, as they did after the 2016 decision, but it was unclear whether the agency plans to do so.
ACICS did not immediately return a request for comment, but did post a statement on its website saying it was “disappointed” by the decision. The agency said it believed it was complying with government regulations and was “evaluating all of our options and how best to serve our institutions, including any decision to appeal the assistant secretary’s decision to the court of federal district”.
The 18-month countdown for ACICS-accredited colleges has begun regardless of the accreditor’s intention to appeal the decision. In a call with reporters Friday, Department of Education Undersecretary James Kvaal said three of the 27 colleges associated with ACICS are already seeking accreditation from another accreditor.
The department will require those schools to comply with the new rules if they want to continue receiving federal money. Those requirements include limiting enrollment in programs that would take more than 18 months to complete, as well as warning students about the possibility of universities losing federal funding. In addition, schools must create a roadmap for students on how to pursue their studies. The Department of Education also published a guide for students attending these institutions.
“While this decision may have serious implications for students at these institutions,” Kvaal said, “we are committed to working with them and our other partners to ensure that students have a path forward and that institutions of quality have a fair chance to find another accreditation. agency.”
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