An advisory group to the U.S. Department of Education voted 11 to 1 Friday to recommend terminating federal recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools.
The verdict was a case of déjà vu for staff members at ACICS, a beleaguered national accreditor of mostly for-profit colleges -- they’ve been in this position before.
The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, or NACIQI, made the same recommendation back in 2016, citing ACICS failing to meet compliance requirements and lax oversight of several deeply flawed for-profit institutions.
In December of that year, the Obama-era U.S. Department of Education pulled recognition of ACICS, beginning an 18-month transition period when the 245 higher education institutions overseen by the accreditor were encouraged to seek accreditation elsewhere or lose their access to federal financial aid.
In that 18-month period, ACICS fought back, launching an appeal process that was ultimately successful in reversing the department’s decision before any institutions lost access to Title IV funds.
In March 2018, a U.S. judge ruled that the Department of Education had failed to consider key evidence before terminating recognition of ACICS. Soon after, President Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, restored recognition of the accreditor, giving the agency a second chance and another 12 months to come into compliance with federal regulations.
That review process ended Friday at another NACIQI meeting. The committee’s recommendation to end the federal recognition of ACICS will be considered by a senior Education Department official within 90 days. ACICS will have the opportunity to appeal the decision, first to the new education secretary, Miguel Cardona, and then through the courts.
It is highly unlikely that Cardona, who is President Biden’s appointee, will go against NACIQI’s recommendation, said Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy at New America, a left-leaning think tank, and a former senior policy adviser for the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration.
ACICS has exhibited an "unprecedented level of noncompliance" in the past few years, said McCann.
"They have not gone a year since 2018 without some sort of compliance report or inquiry being raised by the department, and it’s been years of repeated issues," she said.
ACICS could continue as an accreditor without federal recognition but would lose much of its appeal to the institutions it serves, McCann said. Without the accreditor having federal recognition, institutions accredited by ACICS would no longer be able to access Title IV federal financial aid. Many higher education institutions, particularly for-profits that enroll large numbers of low-income students, are heavily dependent on Title IV funds.
Since 2016, ACICS membership has shrunk from 245 to 59 institutions. Some institutions closed, but many moved to other accreditors, according to a 2018 analysis by the Center for American Progress, another left-leaning think tank. As a result of this hemorrhaging membership, ACICS significantly reduced its staff and dipped substantially into financial reserves over the past few years.
Despite this decline, ACICS seems unwilling to go down without a fight. In an online statement shortly after the final NACIQI vote was last week, Michelle Edwards, ACICS president, strongly rebuked the group’s judgment.
“Over the past five years, ACICS has made important strides to strengthen our organization, our accountability, our procedures, and accreditation criteria,” Edwards said. “ACICS’s recognition should be driven by the improvements we have made and our effectiveness as an accreditor today, not by policy priorities and outside pressures from political activists. Unfortunately, we were not given that opportunity by NACIQI.”
Speaking in the virtual NACIQI meeting Thursday, Edwards accused the Department of Education of bias and inconsistent application of accreditation standards. She referred to a recent report from the Office of Inspector General that described flaws in the Department of Education’s 2016 decision-making process. That report was discussed in the NACIQI meeting but was not formally considered as part of the committee’s recommendation.
Four Department of Education reports were considered in the meeting, each finding ACICS out of compliance with federal regulations. One compliance report and one monitoring report were commissioned by the previous education secretary, DeVos. These two reports concluded that some ACICS staff had not received sufficient training to carry out their roles effectively and cast doubt on the financial stability of the agency. In the NACIQI meeting, some members felt that concerns about the agency’s financial stability in the long term were overblown and could potentially correct themselves if the agency retained federal recognition.
The other two reports considered by NACIQI concerned failed ACICS oversight of two institutions --- Reagan National University and Virginia International University. A February 2020 USA Today investigation found that Reagan National University was little more than an empty office, with no students and no faculty. Poor academic quality at Virginia International University, now rebranded as Fairfax University of America, was the subject of a scathing report by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia in early 2019 -- raising questions about ACICS's oversight of the institution.
Edwards said that ACICS changed in recent years, and she fielded questions about the organization’s financial stability, training standards and processes. But she ultimately failed to convince members of the advisory group that those changes were sufficient to merit retaining recognition.
What happened at Reagan National and Virginia International clearly indicates that ACICS does not "have the capacity to do effective monitoring," said Claude Pressnell, NACIQI representative and president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, during the Friday meeting.
The ACICS president maintained the accreditor was being singled out.
“It has been the long-standing practice of the Department of Education to grant recognition to accrediting agencies that are in substantial compliance with the recognition requirements, and continuous improvement has always been the guiding principle. But with today’s action, a different standard is being applied to ACICS,” Edwards said in the statement released after Friday’s vote.
“Let me be clear: this should be seen as a fundamental shift in accreditation policy and a wake-up call to all accreditors,” Edwards said. “If it is applied to all accreditors equally, and not just to ACICS, it would mean that all accreditors must be in absolute compliance at all times. Any incident of noncompliance, no matter how immaterial, would seemingly be cause for denial of continued recognition.”
Whether there has been a "fundamental shift" in accreditation policy is debatable, said McCann. "I do think there has been a shift in recent years towards believing that accreditation really does matter, and that our accreditors need to be held to a higher standard," she said.
Increased scrutiny may not be welcomed by all accreditors, but McCann doesn’t think it is unfair or unwarranted.
"I would argue there needs to be more of it," she said.