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The future of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools will be at stake later this month when a federal accreditation panel reviews the agency's performance. Consumer advocacy groups, state attorneys general and Democrats in Congress are putting intense pressure on the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity -- and ultimately on the Education Department, which the panel advises -- to shut down ACICS.

But much more than the accreditor's fate is in play in this month's review by the panel known as NACIQI.

The credibility of the entire federal system of higher education quality assurance will be under intense scrutiny as well, with significant implications for other accreditors and for the Obama administration, many experts on higher education believe.

Critics of ACICS, which accredits roughly 900 for-profit institutions, assert that the agency has done so little to rein in poorly performing institutions that it can no longer be viewed as a legitimate overseer of consumer protection and higher education quality. The accreditor has been blasted by leading Democratic politicians, consumer groups and others.

"Allowing ACICS to continue would raise significant questions about the long-term viability of accreditation in the federal financial aid programs," Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, said via email. "If ever there was an agency whose pathetic performance justifies termination, it is ACICS …. If the absolute worst major accreditor faces no sanctions, then there is basically no check on the standards of any accreditation agency, and it raises the question of what value add we even get from these agencies."

ACICS has few defenders beyond its own constituents. But it has many of those: more than 800 institutions that now enroll more than 800,000 students.

And as many observers who follow and care about higher education accreditation see it, NACIQI and the Education Department not only should but must take into account how their decisions about ACICS might affect the institutions it accredits and their students. Stripping the agency's recognition would mean that students at the institutions it accredits would lose their right to federal aid and loans.

"If you act too precipitously, you create chaos," said Paul Gaston, author of the 2014 book Higher Education Accreditation: How It's Changing, Why It Must. "There might be ways to deal with ACICS that address concerns but wouldn't create the kind of bold headlines that some of the voices out there would like to see."

One area on which there is widespread agreement is that the ACICS situation has implications that extend far beyond the agency itself. The Obama administration, following the lead of the Bush administration before it, has increasingly viewed accreditors as consumer protection agencies that ought to be judged by the quality of the institutions they accredit. And while ACICS is the most visible example of what happens when accreditors are viewed through that prism, it is unlikely to be the only one.

"The ACICS narrative fits into the broader set of efforts with the [Education Department] and its transparency agenda," said Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. "The department has very much taken on a framing role about what accreditors ought to be doing. It is very clear it is looking at what it considers to be accreditor effectiveness. For all of us, the department, the accreditors, CHEA, the terms and conditions for what counts as effective accreditation are changing."

The Accreditation Big Picture

Some of the most acute issues in higher education collide in the situation surrounding ACICS.

Accreditors have for decades had a dual role. They were originally formed as voluntary associations of member colleges to prod institutions to improve, but they have also had responsibility as quasi-governmental regulators since the federal government essentially subcontracted out to them the role of assuring a minimum level of quality for the purpose of allocating federal financial aid funds more than half a century ago.

The pressure on the agencies to hold colleges accountable for their own performance has ratcheted up significantly in the last decade, since then Education Secretary Margaret Spellings's Commission on the Future of Higher Education sought to require accrediting agencies to set "bright line" minimum levels for student learning outcomes at the institutions they oversaw.

During the Obama administration, as student debt levels soared and graduation rates and other outcomes became a higher priority, policy makers have increasingly expected the accreditors to take responsibility for institutions' performance on those fronts, as well.

The spectacular meltdown of significant portions of the for-profit higher education sector has intensified the scrutiny of accreditors, focusing attention particularly on the handful of national agencies (of which ACICS is one) that accredit most of the country's 1,500 for-profit institutions. But the conflagration hasn't been limited to those agencies, spilling over to the regional accrediting agencies (which accredit some of the larger for-profit colleges).

The pressure on accreditors has been evident on multiple fronts. With congressional action at a relative standstill given the divisions on Capitol Hill (though a Senate panel has opened an inquiry into the performance of accreditors), the Obama administration has done what it can on its own, telling accreditors this spring to focus more on enforcing standards that measure student achievement and considering additional scrutiny for colleges with significant problems.

Perhaps the most direct path the federal government has to influencing the behavior of accreditors, however, is through the government's process for giving (or withholding) recognition that allows the agencies to be gatekeepers of federal financial aid. Only if an accreditor has federal recognition does the agency's approval of a college give the institution's students access to federal aid -- and that is the main reason most colleges seek accreditation.

As occurred during the tail end of Spellings's term at the Education Department, the Obama administration has encouraged the members of the NACIQI panel to turn up the pressure on accreditors that seek recognition before it. In recent meetings, members of the committee have voiced frustration about accreditors' focus on policies and procedures rather than on institutional outcomes, and the panel has asked Congress to give it more authority to force accreditors to focus more on student learning and student outcomes.

Yet the situation surrounding the troubled accreditor for California's community colleges last year laid bare just how difficult it can be for the federal government to crack down on accreditors, either because the government lacks sufficient powers or because stripping recognition from agencies that serve large numbers of institutions could harm students and legitimate institutions. The situation involving the California accreditor differed significantly from this one, because the agency was unpopular not because it wasn't tough enough, but because many colleges thought it was too tough (and inconsistently so).

So the current moment is one in which many politicians and policy makers are questioning the performance of higher education (and particularly for-profit higher education), accreditors are increasingly viewed as part of the problem rather than a solution, and critics are questioning whether the Education Department has the firepower to regulate the accreditors.

That is the lion's den that the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools will enter later this month when it appears before NACIQI.

ACICS as Exhibit A

In the debate about the performance of accreditors, ACICS is ground zero. It was the accreditor of some of the biggest recent disasters, most notably Corinthian Colleges, which was forced into closure in 2014 amid a slew of federal and state investigations into alleged wrongdoing and financial duress driven by enrollment declines, terrible publicity and, ultimately, federal restrictions on its funds.

But that is far from the only troubled institution ACICS accredited, as documented in recent reports by the Center for American Progress (none-too-subtly called "ACICS Must Go") and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, among others.

"ACICS has spent years cranking open the spigot to allow taxpayer funds to flow to some of the sleaziest actors in American higher education," said a report released by Warren's office Friday. "ACICS has a history of accrediting schools that have faced investigations, penalties and settlements for violations of federal and state law …. Compared to institutions certified by other major accreditors, many ACICS-accredited institutions consistently post some of the worst student outcomes in the country, measured by graduation rates, postenrollment earnings and debt burdens."

ACICS has challenged some of the assertions about it, but it has also responded to the criticism by making a set of internal changes (including replacing its top executive) and trying to flex its muscles in its oversight of colleges.

"ACICS takes seriously all criticisms against our organization, and we recognize the need for internal reform in order to better protect and serve students," said Anthony S. Bieda, who is leading the accreditor on an interim basis. "That is why we have announced several bold initiatives to both reform and strengthen ACICS’s effectiveness and its oversight of member institutions. We are confident that these measures will re-evaluate, fortify and enhance every aspect of ACICS’s accreditation process."

The accreditor's critics say its remedial actions are far too little, too late, and they are framing the agency's appearance before NACIQI next week as a referendum not only on ACICS itself but on the legitimacy of the federal process for ensuring quality in higher education.

As part of this process, the Education Department staff makes a report with a recommendation to the NACIQI panel, which then hears testimony from the agency and from public commenters before deliberating and making a recommendation of its own to the education secretary. The department then has 90 days to make a decision.

"Terminating ACICS would be a breath of fresh air for a quality assurance system that desperately needs it," Miller of the Center for American Progress said via email. "Much like how the demise of Corinthian Colleges changed the dynamics between the Department of Education and institutions of higher education, removing a bad accreditor would signal to the others that their gatekeeping role must be taken seriously and that failing to fulfill that mission will have consequences.

"Importantly, it will also reward the agencies out there that do strive to have real standards, because it will show that there is a reward for being diligent and rigorous."

Few higher education observers rally to ACICS's defense. But that doesn't mean they necessarily support the calls to terminate the accreditor's federal recognition -- or at least think that it should be done precipitously.

The ACICS situation is without parallel, said Gaston and Peter Ewell, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and something of a historian of accreditation. Only one or two accreditors have been shuttered in the past, and those that have closed have been tiny compared to ACICS.

Most of the experts interviewed for this article agreed with Gaston that shutting ACICS, as critics favor, would create chaos. While critics of the agency argue that closing the agency is what the Education Department must do to fulfill its obligations to protect consumers, Gaston argues that a case to the contrary can be made.

"The mission of the secretary is ultimately to protect the public from unscrupulous providers and support students who are pursuing their legitimate educational goals with legitimate providers," he said. "Those interests need to be kept in mind."

Adds Eaton of CHEA: "The question that should be asked is, what is the best way to do the least harm to students and legitimately operating schools?"

Experts interviewed for this article suggested various alternatives that NACIQI and the department might consider in lieu of stripping the agency's recognition immediately, which would give the institutions it accredits 18 months to find a new home:

  • Announcing plans to shut the accreditor in three years, to allow for a more orderly transition for the colleges it accredits. Under this scenario, some institutions would presumably be able to demonstrate quality to other accreditors and maintain eligibility for federal aid, but critics argue some poorly performing colleges might close because they could not.
  • Giving ACICS six months to propose significant changes to fix its problems and a plan to help in the orderly transition of the colleges it accredits to other agencies, in case NACIQI ends up dissatisfied with its remediation plan.
  • Finding an accreditor willing to take over ACICS's portfolio, essentially a takeover.
  • Replacing the agency's entire management and board, to clean house.

Gaston and others argue that ACICS's problems were mostly operational, rather than in the agency's standards or structure.

"Looking at the organization on paper, it looks pretty good -- its standards are more clear than those of the regional accreditors, and their processes, on the face of them, look pretty solid," he said. "The issue has been one of execution and of consistency in execution. If you were to create from a blank page a national accreditor that would do the job ACICS has been doing, you would come up with something that would look a lot like ACICS."

"So to me the question is whether there is a remedial action short of the death penalty that would address the concerns of the critics, and that would lead to better practice," he said.

Gaston acknowledges that anything short of immediate closure of ACICS might not "create the kind of bold headlines that some of the voices would like to see," a clear reference to the politicians and advocacy groups that see ACICS as an enabler of abuses in the for-profit higher ed sector.

But even if NACIQI and the Education Department ultimately stop short of turning out the lights on ACICS, the scrutiny they have applied to the agency's oversight of its member colleges represents a sea change in federal oversight of higher education, most observers agree.

"Eight years ago we wouldn’t be judging ACICS primarily by the performance of the institutions it oversees," said Eaton of CHEA. For all accreditors, she said, "the lens has changed, the frame of reference has changed."

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