The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), which is responsible for providing accreditation to for-profit colleges, has officially been stripped of its authority by the Department of Education (DOE). The news regarding the DOE’s decision was made public on Thursday, September 22, 2016. The Department of Education previously released a report in June regarding an investigation into ACICS, which raised several concerns over their methods. In particular, the agency’s failure to confirm the validity of schools’ reported statistics on student performance, their continued discretion over sanctioning undeserving institutions and their deficiency in identifying conflicts of interest among board members, many of whom worked at a number of the schools that were under investigation, with some even holding high-ranking executive positions. It is the job of college accreditors to make certain the establishment is of high quality, as approval allows for billions of federal student aid dollars to be made available to them. However, research has shown that on average, students at schools accredited by ACICS have the lowest student loan repayment and graduation rates in the country. In a letter written to ACICS, Chief of Staff to the Education Secretary Emma Vadehra wrote, “I am terminating the department’s recognition of ACICS as a national recognized accrediting agency. ACICS’s track record does not inspire confidence that it can address all of the problems effectively.”
The agency has been on the radar of several watchdogs, including members of Congress, numerous student and consumer advocacy groups, and other interested parties for some time. There was a collective sigh of relief following the decision, with senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, Ben Miller, stating, “The rot from poor behavior spread beyond just the for-profit schools to the people who were supposed to be looking over them. This is an extremely important decision both in protecting students and taxpayers.” As of 2016, ACICS was responsible for the accreditation of 725 schools, including the now-defunct campuses of ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian College. They were also responsible for doling out $3.3 billion in federal financial aid in 2015.
ACICS was given 30 days to file an appeal to maintain its status as a federally approved accreditation agency, which they have made clear they plan to do with interim president Roger Williams releasing a statement that read, “While we are disappointed in this decision, ACICS plans to continue diligent efforts to renew and strengthen its policies and practices necessary to demonstrate this agency’s determination to come into full compliance with the Department of Education’s recognition criteria and, most importantly, to improve outcomes for the estimated 600,000 students currently attending ACICS-accredited institutions.” If and when they do file their appeal, it will be reviewed by U.S. Education Secretary John King.
It’s no secret most for-profit colleges are nothing more than that: FOR profit. I’m sure we’ve all seen the advertisements on television, most of which air during daytime television on guilty-pleasure programs like ‘The Jerry Springer Show’ or ‘Maury,’ where people are encouraged, some might even say berated, to get off the couch and go make a better life for themselves by attending this school or that. But if you’ve ever taken the time to read the fine-print listed for mere milliseconds at the bottom of the screen, you understand many of these “colleges” do not offer formal degrees or transferable credits upon graduation or movement to a more esteemed non-profit educational institution. They also have a history of refusing to accept any prior hours earned from previous schools, resulting in students having to pay thousands of dollars for classes they have already taken.
Whether or not King will rule in their favor remains to be seen, but it would be surprising if he did. As Miller said while responding to the DOE’s conclusion, “With its lengthy track record of shoddy oversight – that has led to billions of taxpayer dollars squandered – ACICS had abused the public’s trust and could not be allowed to continue granting access to federal dollars. The collapse of Corinthian Colleges, and now ITT Tech, is an impossible-to-ignore signal that the federal accreditation system is riddled with flaws.”
Indeed, it is.