BREAKING: ED Dept advisory group recommends pulling ACICS’ federal recognition

Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Department of Education’s accreditation advisory group voted in favor of agency staff’s recommendation to terminate the recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools.
  • The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity’s recommendation to terminate recognition will be handed off to a senior department official, who will make the final decision. Eleven committee members voted in favor of pulling recognition and one member voted against.
  • The embattled accreditor of for-profit colleges pushed back on the findings that formed the basis of the recommendation and said it has made several changes to its oversight process.

Dive Insight:

The merits of ACICS’ federal recognition have been publicly debated since 2016, when the Obama administration pulled it following the collapse of two large for-profit college chains it oversaw. The Trump administration reinstated its approval of the accreditor in 2018. 

But the department has continued to find ACICS out of compliance with several of its regulations. It’s not the only entity to raise concerns. An accreditation industry group committee recommended denying ACICS its own endorsement; the accreditor responded by rescinding its application to be considered.

The Ed Department staff recommendation was delivered in a series of reports in January that said the accreditor hadn’t fulfilled key oversight requirements, including around the efficacy of its training for site visitors, its ability to monitor institutions and its financial health. Two of the reports were commissioned by former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in order to reinstate recognition.

A USA Today investigation last year highlighted some of those concerns. It found evidence that an ACICS-accredited institution appeared to lack students and faculty, and that the accreditor was unaware. The department report pointed to that situation as an indication ACICS lacks “the administrative capacity to carry out its accreditation activities.” 

ACICS contested the department’s findings during virtual deliberations on Thursday and Friday. ACICS President Michelle Edwards contended the accreditor has come into full compliance with department requirements, and charged that the criticisms against ACICS were fueled by “activist groups and political opponents of career colleges.”

Deliberations on ACICS’ fate extended into Friday to give committee members time to review a report published this week by the department’s internal watchdog. It highlights concerns about overinvolvement by political staff during the Obama administration’s probe of ACICS. A federal court sided with ACICS on its challenge of the 2016 decision, which concluded that all evidence was not considered. The court handed the decisions back to the department under DeVos for reconsideration. 

The report also vetted a subset of the 19 accreditation criteria the DeVos administration found ACICS compliant on of the 21 considered, and said the decisions were supported by the evidence supplied. 

Antoinette Flores, acting vice president of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, who spoke during the meeting in favor of dropping ACICS, defended the staff’s involvement. “When an agency loses recognition. It requires the cooperation and coordination of the entire department,” Flores said. 

ACICS’ membership has dwindled in recent years, from around 250 institutions in late 2016 to around 60 institutions today. 

This is a developing story and will be updated

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