Ed Dept strips embattled accreditor ACICS of federal status — again

Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Department of Education is moving to terminate the federal recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, a decision that would require the institutions it oversees to find a new accreditor in order to continue to access federal financial aid funding.
  • This is not the first time ACICS has had its recognition pulled. The department under the Obama administration revoked it in 2016, though the Trump administration reverted the status two years later.
  • ACICS said in a statement on its website that it plans to appeal the decision. If it loses the appeal, its colleges would have 18 months to find a new accreditor.

Dive Insight:

Jordan Matsudaira, a senior department official and recent political appointee, handed down the decision. It falls in line with a recommendation from department staff to nix ACICS’s recognition, which the department’s accreditation advisory group largely co-signed earlier this year.

Department staff contended ACICS was falling short of meeting key oversight requirements, including training its site visitors and monitoring schools’ financial health. The head of ACICS pushed back, arguing it was compliant and blamed “activist groups and political opponents of career colleges” for undue scrutiny.

In a 78-page letter dated Wednesday explaining the latest decision, Matsudaira wrote that the accreditor’s “significant and systemic noncompliance with multiple regulatory recognition criteria leaves me no reasonable option but to terminate its recognition, effective immediately.”

ACICS’s membership has declined in recent years. It lists 81 college campuses on its website today, compared to around 260 in late 2016. A large chunk of those schools found a different accreditor following the 2016 decision to revoke ACICS’s status.

The accreditor has 30 days to appeal the latest decision to the department’s secretary, which it says it plans to do. Use of the courts also proved effective the last time it was in this situation. A federal judge in 2018 required the department to reconsider the move, saying it hadn’t included enough available evidence in its review. That bumped the decision to the Trump administration’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who reinstated ACICS. 

Debate over whether ACICS should be allowed to accredit colleges hasn’t died down, however. The department continued to find the accreditor out of compliance with several of its regulations. A prominent accreditation industry group sought to deny ACICS its endorsement. And a USA Today reporter found that the accreditor was unaware one of its schools apparently lacked students and instructors — information department staff and the accreditation advisory group weighed when making their recommendations.

ACICS President Michelle Edwards, in the organization’s statement, accused the department of applying its standards unfairly and wrote that the accreditor had remedied its noncompliance. “All accreditors should see this moment as a wake-up call,” Edwards wrote.

During deliberations about the department staff recommendation earlier this month, some members of the advisory committee commented that they hoped the level of scrutiny used in ACICS’s case would be applied to accreditors broadly.

For-profit college trade group Career Education Colleges and Universities declined to comment on the department’s decision.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a statement from ACICS.

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