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The Department of Education is officially terminating federal recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools after Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten issued a final decision Friday.

The department will provisionally certify the 27 for-profit colleges currently accredited by ACICS to continue to receive federal funding. However, the colleges must find another accreditor within 18 months, or their funding will be revoked. These colleges will also be prohibited from enrolling new students until they find a new accreditor unless a student can finish their program within the 18-month period.

“The deputy secretary’s decision is not grounded in ACICS’s history or reputation but rather its continued long-standing inability to come into compliance with the minimum standards expected of accreditation agencies over the course of years,” said Under Secretary of Education James Kvaal. The department said this is the final decision it will issue regarding ACICS.

The accrediting agency can challenge the decision in federal court. However, Kvaal said that the department had “not heard from ACICS today,” regarding whether the accreditor intends to challenge the decision.

ACICS did not respond to Inside Higher Ed when approached for comment on the decision from the department or whether it will challenge the decision. The council gave a statement to The Washington Post that said, “We believe it is deeply flawed and that ACICS has been in substantial compliance with any objective, consistent, and reasonable interpretation of the recognition criteria. We are evaluating all of our options … including any decision to appeal the deputy secretary’s decision in federal district court.”

The decision marks the end of a years-long process; the Education Department first terminated ACICS under the Obama administration in 2016. ACICS regained recognition from then-education secretary Betsy DeVos in 2018.

In 2021, the Education Department terminated ACICS again after several recommendations from department staff and the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity. A report from department staff found that ACICS failed to comply with federal regulation criteria, including “monitoring of compliance of institutions and inadequate administrative capability.” ACICS appealed this decision, which was then sent to Marten for final approval.

ACICS argued in its appeal that the decision from the Education Department was “riddled with procedural defects and tainted by prejudicial politicization.”

Kvaal said that this decision does not indicate “a lack of quality or misconduct” of colleges currently accredited by ACICS. He also said that three of the 27 colleges accredited by ACICS are already in the process of seeking another accreditor.

The department has corresponded with students enrolled at these colleges about the decision, and colleges will also be required to reach out to students about any possible implications of the decision.

Democrats in Congress called attention to ACICS in 2016 after it gave accreditation to the for-profit chains ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian Colleges, which both later closed after federal investigations found they had misled students.

Jason Altmire, the president of Career Education Colleges and Universities, which represents for-profit colleges, said, “This decision will have no impact on 99 percent of for-profit institutions and thus should not be interpreted as a rebuke of the for-profit college sector.”

The department ensured that students enrolled in colleges currently accredited by ACICS will be protected if their college does not gain accreditation again within the 18-month period and closes as a result of a loss of federal funding. “We will work with students to ensure that they hear from their school about options for transferring to another institution,” said Kvaal. “Students will also have their Pell Grant eligibility restored if their school closes.”

Critics of the accreditor praised the final decision. Michael Itzkowitz, a senior fellow at the think tank Third Way, said, “Over the past 10 years, ACICS has repeatedly broken the public’s trust and has been a bad steward of taxpayer dollars. There should be no tolerance for accreditors or other government-backed oversight entities that have such little regard for the outcomes of students who are hoping to better their lives.”

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