Federal advisory board votes to drop controversial for-profit-college accreditor

An independent advisory board voted Friday to prevent a controversial accreditation agency from being a gatekeeper between colleges and billions of dollars of federal financial aid, bringing the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools a step closer to losing its authority.

In a 11-1 vote, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity recommended the accrediting agency lose the recognition it needs to operate, citing its lax oversight of troubled for-profit colleges.

A senior official in the Education Department must make a final decision within the next 90 days, and the accreditation agency can appeal the result to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. If the council loses recognition, it would force about 60 schools to find another accreditor.

Accrediting agencies are little-known but powerful organizations the Education Department relies on to determine if colleges are worthy to participate in the federal student aid program. If a college lacks an accreditor’s seal of approval, its students cannot obtain the federal education loans that are the lifeblood of many schools.

ACICS was once one of the nation’s largest accreditors, with nearly 300 schools under its watch.

The council gained notoriety for allowing for-profit chains Corinthian Colleges and Carmel-based ITT Technical Institute to remain accredited despite widespread findings of fraud. The Obama administration revoked the council’s recognition in 2016 following the collapse of those chains.

But the council has faced years of criticism for its supervision of institutions with poor track records of serving students. It lost the recognition to operate in 2016—causing many colleges to flee ACICS—but was given another chance by the Trump administration with the understanding that it would rectify outstanding problems.

But in January, career staffers at the Education Department concluded ACICS had still failed to meet federal standards. Staffers said the council had done a poor job of training employees to conduct site visits, failed to address conflicts of interest and lacked the finances to sustain itself in the long term.

Career staff at the department also raised concerns about ACICS extending its seal of approval to institutions such as Reagan National University, a school in South Dakota that a USA Today investigation last year revealed had no students, faculty or classrooms. The university voluntarily surrendered its accreditation in February 2020.

Another council-accredited school, Fairfax University of America, formerly known as Virginia International University, was nearly forced to close in 2019 after a state audit blasted the quality and rigor of its online education program. Education Department staff questioned why ACICS had failed to step up before state regulators intervened.

Members of the advisory board said during a two-day hearing this week that there were too many instances where the accrediting council was behind in rooting out deficiencies and little indication that it would be up to the task in the future.

ACICS President Michelle Edwards vigorously defended the council during the hearing. She accused the Education Department of holding the council to subjective standards and being influenced by “activist groups” with a grudge against for-profit schools.

In 2018, then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reinstated the council over the objections of her staff, which found the accreditor in violation of dozens of standards. DeVos concluded the council could rectify its problems and had been unjustly cast out—an accusation bolstered by a watchdog report released this week.

The Education Department’s inspector general on Wednesday said the Obama administration failed to consider all relevant information in its review of the council. The watchdog said political appointees interfered with career staff’s review of the council, but staff members said the effort had no bearing on their decision. But while the inspector general raised concerns about the process of the review, the office did not question the staff’s findings.

Still, Edwards of ACICS cited the watchdog’s report as evidence that the council has been unfairly targeted. Some members of the advisory board said the report was irrelevant to the matters at hand, while others said the department’s actions in 2016 cast a shadow on the council.

All the same, members who criticized the process under the Obama administration said the bigger issue was ensuring accreditors are held to higher standards and students are protected from unscrupulous actors.

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