College accreditors are facing scrutiny on yet another front in Washington.
As the Obama administration announces a set of executive actions and proposed legislative steps to toughen its oversight of the agencies, a U.S. Senate investigative committee has opened a sweeping inquiry into higher education accreditation, and lawmakers have started requesting records of individual accrediting agencies, according to several people familiar with the review.
The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations is “reviewing the role that accreditors play in assessing the quality and financial health of postsecondary institutions and programs,” according to a letter from lawmakers on the panel that was obtained by Inside Higher Ed.
The letter, dated Nov. 3, seeks a wide range of documents from the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, one of the largest national accrediting agencies, which has been controversial because it accredited the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges up until the for-profit college chain collapsed.
The letter was signed by the Republican chair of the subcommittee, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, and the top Democrat on the panel, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri. The inquiry has not yet been made public, and spokeswomen for both senators declined to comment.
Lawmakers asked ACICS to provide a large set of documents and data about the colleges it has accredited going back more than 10 years. The deadline for the agency to respond is Nov. 13.
In a statement on Thursday, Albert C. Gray, the president and chief executive officer of the accreting agency confirmed that his organization had received the request for information, which was sent earlier this week.
“ACICS will comply in a timely fashion,” he said. “The council looks forward to working with the subcommittee to improve and strengthen the accreditation process.”
The lawmakers' review of accreditation has also involved other accrediting agencies and other groups beyond ACICS, according to two people familiar with those interactions.
The investigative subcommittee, which is part of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, has a broad mandate to review and investigate the operations of all branches of the federal government. Although accrediting agencies are not governmental entities, their stamp of approval makes colleges and universities eligible for billions of dollars in federal funding each year.
The Senate committee’s review of accreditation comes as accreditors, and ACICS in particular, have faced growing scrutiny in Washington, D.C.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently demanded records from ACICS as part of an investigation into possible “unlawful acts and practices in connection with accrediting for-profit colleges.” That came after Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, grilled the accrediting agency’s chief during a congressional hearing in July.
The two Republican chairmen of the congressional education committees have criticized the CFPB’s demand for records from ACICS as an “unprecedented overreach.” CFPB Director Richard Cordray has responded by suggesting that college accrediting agencies may fall within the jurisdiction of the consumer bureau.