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The biggest chain of for-profit colleges that is still overseen by an accreditation group axed by the Obama administration -- and given a second chance by Betsy DeVos -- failed this month in its initial bid to get recognition elsewhere.

Virginia College, which operates campuses across 11 states, has already said it will appeal the decision from the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training. The ruling appears to raise the stakes for the Trump administration’s latest review of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, the chain’s current accreditor and a focal point in the fight over accountability in the for-profit sector.

ACICS oversaw Corinthian Colleges, which collapsed in 2015, and ITT Tech, which closed its campuses in 2016. The Department of Education responded by withdrawing federal recognition from the organization in the final months of the Obama administration, setting off an exodus of colleges -- most of them for-profits -- that sought approval from other accreditors so they could maintain access to federal financial aid funds. 

Among those institutions was Virginia College, which enrolled just under 30,000 students as of the 2015-16 academic year. 

The failings cited by ACCET in a letter detailing its decision focused on outcome measures such as poor graduation and job placement rates. But it also mentioned more basic problems with programs themselves, such as students not having access to proper supplies and high faculty turnover rates.

Diane Worthington, a spokeswoman for Education Corporation of America, the Virginia chain’s parent company, said that the ACCET review covered less than half of its campuses and the institution had just two weeks to respond to multiple reports, some of which it believes contain errors or inconsistencies. 

She added that most of the outcome issues noted by the report involve old programs, while new academic programs haven’t had time to produce measurable outcomes. 

“In the meantime, Virginia College remains an accredited institution by ACICS,” she said via email. “Our students are continuing to work toward completing their programs and receiving their diplomas and degrees without disruption, and this will not impact those students who are eligible to receive federal student financial aid.”

Bill Larkin, executive director of the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training, said he could not comment on Virginia College while the decision is being appealed.  

ACCET is in the process of reviewing other ACICS-accredited schools and has so far approved one for recognition. The organization is one of several national accreditors that have ramped up activity to review a flood of new applications from ACICS-accredited institutions. 

A Center for American Progress analysis in February found that just a handful of ACICS-accredited programs had not taken any steps to seek approval elsewhere. The rest had either gained a new accreditor, begun the process to do so, closed, or merged with other institutions. 

That process in most cases has continued despite two major recent developments in the fight ACICS has waged to restore its federal recognition.

First, in March a U.S. district court judge ruled that the Obama administration had failed to review key documentary evidence submitted by the accreditor before withdrawing recognition in 2016. The ruling sent the case back to the Department of Education for a final decision on recognition. Then last month, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced that she would restore federal recognition to ACICS pending a final review by the department. 

Antoinette Flores, a senior analyst of postsecondary education policy at the Center for American Progress, says the review raises questions about how the campuses were accredited to begin with.

“After months of back and forth, and giving the institution the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to contest information in the report, it still comes up failing the majority of the standards,” she said. “For me, it’s a question of how can they be accredited at all.” 

Flores said the failure of Virginia College to get recognition elsewhere -- and the serious nature of the findings -- make the department’s ruling on ACICS even more critical for those campuses.

“At this point they don’t have an accreditor at the ready that is willing to approve them,” she said. 

The negative review from ACCET also has implications for the chain’s ongoing accreditation. A week after the denial letter was issued, ACICS placed Virginia College-Birmingham, the chain’s main campus, on show-cause status, citing adverse information. The status requires than an institution demonstrate within one year why it should retain accreditation. 

Worthington said ACICS has made “a laudable effort to introduce a new process for verifying placements.”

But she said the company’s internal data better reflect the job placement rates for graduates, and ACICS has provided an opportunity to submit those rates for verification. 

Since April 24, the accreditor has placed at least 50 campuses on show-cause status. The Brightwood College and Brightwood Career institute chains, which are also operated by Education Corporation of America, had four campuses placed on show cause just this month. 

Those actions, along with the findings of other accreditors, signal just how many colleges recognized by ACICS don’t meet basic standards, Flores said. 

“That kind of massive failure is not something that happens overnight,” she said. 

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