The Trump administration on Friday released an internal staff report showing numerous failures at an accrediting body of mostly for-profit colleges whose federal recognition was restored by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos earlier this year.
That accreditor, the Accrediting Council of Independent Colleges and Schools, is seeking to permanently win back federal recognition after having it yanked by the Obama administration in 2016 following the collapse of two large for-profit college chains it oversaw. That recognition is critical to maintaining access to Title IV funds for colleges ACICS oversees, many of which have struggled to find approval elsewhere.
The release of the report was the subject of a months-long open-records battle involving advocacy groups, the department and ACICS. The Trump administration says the findings won’t factor into a final review of the 2016 decision, but accreditation observers say the report makes clear that ACICS is ineffective as an oversight body.
Antoinette Flores, associate director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, said if allowed to continue as an oversight body ACICS would undermine accreditation writ large as a reliable authority of college quality.
“I don’t see how the department can decide to do anything other than find them noncompliant and deny them recognition,” she said.
Michelle Edwards, president and CEO of ACICS, said the organization had submitted information to the department correcting “numerous inaccuracies” in the report -- although she did not mention specifics -- and demonstrating compliance with federal standards.
“We stand by the information we have presented to the department and we look forward to completing the review process in an efficient and constructive manner,” she said.
The failures cited in the analysis overlap with many issues raised in previous staff findings in 2016. Among the most serious issues: department staff found no evidence that ACICS effectively evaluates recruitment practices by institutions -- a key issue involved in investigations of the for-profit Corinthian Colleges chain, which documents showed paid recruiters incentives based on numbers of students enrolled.
The report showed ACICS policies were not widely accepted among other accreditors or state agencies. And it found that the accreditor couldn’t prove it had put in place two of the biggest reforms it had promised over the last year: graduation rate benchmarks for institutions and job placement verification. ACICS also failed to clear a standard dealing with conflict of interest policies involving staff and contractors -- an issue where department officials had previously lauded the agency's efforts.
"This report makes clear that ACICS is a wholly unfit and unreliable evaluator of higher education institutions: its decisions are not recognized by educators, schools or employers across the United States, and it has shown zero evidence that it can make decisions that protect students and consumers,” said Bob Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “Betsy DeVos may be content with ignoring the overwhelming outside consensus on ACICS’s performance, but she cannot deny the expert opinions of her own staff.”
The report was released with a long-term decision on the accreditor expected within months. A federal court in March ruled that the Obama administration had improperly failed to consider thousands of pages of documents submitted by the accreditor in making its final decision. The decision kicked the case back to the secretary of education for a final review considering the additional evidence.
The Obama administration took the rare step of terminating the accreditor in 2016 after a lengthy review and heavy scrutiny of its oversight of Corinthian Colleges by figures like Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat. Corinthian collapsed in 2015 amid numerous state investigations and consumer complaints. As the performance of ACICS was under the microscope, ITT Tech, another for-profit chain overseen by the organization, closed the next year.
ACICS sued in federal court to block the termination decision but in September of last year applied for recognition from the department, saying it had fundamentally changed as an organization. That process, called “initial recognition,” required that the department review be wider in scope, judging them on all 93 federal criteria.
The completed staff report was sent to ACICS in March. Shortly thereafter, the ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton sent the 2016 case back to the department. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos weeks later said in a signed order that she would restore federal recognition of the accreditor pending a final decision.
The analysis of numerous failings by the accreditor was complete well before the decision by DeVos to restore federal recognition to ACICS. But Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the department, said the secretary did not have a choice other than restoring recognition.
“A judge ruled that the previous administration failed to consider 36,000 pages of relevant evidence before making its decision to withdraw ACICS's recognition as an accreditor and remanded the case back to the secretary,” Hill said in a statement. “This department can’t operate on or enforce a decision that was found invalid by the court.”
And Hill said the draft report wouldn’t figure into a final review of the accreditor because it was completed as part of the 2017 application process that was “rendered moot” by the court order.
But while Walton found the department’s review flawed, he declined to weigh the merits of the accreditor’s case for reinstatement. And the order did not direct the department to restore recognition to ACICS.
“It was a choice to reinstate ACICS while they consider other information,” Flores said.
She and other accreditation observers also said the department has already asked ACICS to submit additional materials beyond those already filed for its 2016 review, even as it insists it won't consider new information revealed in its staff report. Flores said the report makes clear that the accreditor was severely noncompliant with federal standards a full 18 months after that 2016 review.
"Regardless of what new information the department considers," she said, "the original 2016 decision was the right one."