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Just three days into the Biden administration, the Education Department moved Friday to strip the controversial Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools of its powers to accredit colleges and universities.

The recommendation by department staff would represent a change of course and would reverse the Trump administration's decision to restore the accreditor's powers. The Obama administration had pulled its recognition of ACICS after it was criticized for its lax oversight of for-profit institutions like Corinthian Colleges.

ACICS continued to come under scrutiny after it was accused last year of accrediting Reagan National University in South Dakota, which, according to a USA Today report, has no faculty, staff or classrooms.

“The agency failed to demonstrate that it has competent and knowledgeable individuals, qualified by education and experience in their own right and trained by the agency on their responsibilities,” department staff said in its recommendation. The accreditor did not return a request for comment over the weekend.

The report sets off a process, in which the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, a federal body that makes recommendations on accrediting agencies, will take up ACICS’s future at a meeting on Feb. 25. If it recommends removing the agency’s authority, the Education Department will then make a determination, which the accrediting agency could then appeal.

Should the ACICS again lose recognition, about 73 main and branch campuses that now have access to federal student loan dollars because of their accreditation by the body would have 18 months to find another accreditor.

Asked if the recommendation marks a change in philosophy at the Education Department under the Biden administration, Antoinette Flores, director for postsecondary education at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, was cautiously optimistic that it does. “As for whether this marks a change, we will see. This is just career staff at the moment,” she said.

Flores authored a number of papers critical of ACICS with Ben Miller, then vice president for postsecondary education at the think tank. Miller was named senior higher education adviser to the chief of staff to Miguel Cardona, Biden’s nominee for education secretary, on Thursday, a day before the agency recommended pulling ACICS’s authority.

The recommendation was praised by Representative Bobby Scott, the Democratic chairman of the House education committee. “This step is clearly warranted,” said Scott, of Virginia. “History demonstrates that when predatory institutions are given the legitimacy of accreditation, they use it to collect billions of dollars in federal student aid while denying students the education they deserve. Revoking ACICS’ recognition will protect students across the country, including many service members and veterans, from schools that routinely leave students with crippling debt, non-transferrable credits, and no degree.”

Removing recognition of the body would mean the latest in a back-and-forth over several education policies across three administrations. Biden’s Education Department is expected to restore Obama administration policies on campus sexual assault and harassment, to make it easier for students to have their loans forgiven if they were defrauded by an institution, and to remove the ability of institutions, particularly for-profits, to be eligible for student aid dollars if their students do not find gainful employment.

Denying recognition to ACICS would be another shift. The Education Department under the Obama administration in 2016 derecognized the body, which at the time was the gatekeeper to $4.76 billion in 2015 federal aid payments to more than 245 career-oriented colleges, most of them for-profit institutions.

The Obama administration pointed to ACICS’s “pervasive compliance problems,” while advocates decried the agency’s lax oversight of several failed and deeply flawed for-profits, including Corinthian Colleges and FastTrain College. Ted Mitchell, then under secretary of education, cited “such wide and deep failure that they simply cannot be entrusted with making the determinations we, you and the public count on.”

ACICS responded by suing to block its derecognition, which was finalized just before President Trump took office. Congress in 2017 gave colleges overseen by ACICS an additional 18-month extension to find a new agency.

The Trump administration initially backed the agency’s termination in a court filing. But then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, pushing a deregulatory agenda and supportive of the for-profit sector, restored ACICS's authority.

DeVos in April 2018 tentatively restored ACICS’s authority after a federal court ruled that the Obama administration had violated a federal law on the establishment of regulations.

In October of that year, Diane Auer Jones, principal deputy under secretary of education and formerly a lobbyist for the for-profit industry, found ACICS to be in compliance with 19 of the 21 requirements. The department gave ACICS a year to come into full compliance by resolving remaining concerns over conflicts of interest and the competency of its representatives, then never followed up.

Jones said ACICS had submitted convincing evidence that it has made “major improvements” to its processes and procedures. She also cited the federal court’s finding that the Obama administration had violated the law in terminating the agency.

But in Friday’s recommendation, the Education Department, now under the Biden administration, disputed Jones’s conclusion that ACICS had improved.

“ACICS’ claims of turning over a new leaf are cosmetic at best and that the agency continues to struggle with schools that engage in questionable practices,” the recommendation said.

Education Department staff noted that ACICS’s competence had continued to be questioned after its authority was restored.

Last February DeVos told a House education appropriations subcommittee that the department has launched an investigation of ACICS’s accreditation of Reagan National University, after USA Today reporters visited addresses for the South Dakota university and found a darkened office suite behind locked doors at one location. At another location, they found an empty suite save for some insulation scattered on the floor.

“I was not happy to read that,” DeVos told the committee. “We have an investigation launched and we’re on it.”

But in addition, staff said ACICS had not shown it complied with the issues Jones had given the agency more time to resolve.

“ACICS has failed to address the department staff’s concern about the effectiveness of the training -- it has not submitted any information or documentation that it has evaluated whether the training provided to site visitors is effective for their roles and responsibilities,” Education staff found.

Instead, the report said the agency responded that federal regulations “only [require] training to be provided but [do] not require ACICS to demonstrate that its training is effective,” describing the draft staff analysis finding as a “compliance hurdle.”

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