An embattled college accreditor that survived several rounds of federal scrutiny over the course of three presidential administrations may have finally run out of chances.
The U.S. Department of Education on Friday said it had denied the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and School's appeal to retain its federal status as a college accreditor.
The federal government doesn’t accredit colleges directly, instead relying on accreditors to vet universities. The Education Department's decision means roughly two dozen schools approved by ACICS have 18 months to find a new accreditor or they will lose access to federal financial aid such as student loans or Pell Grants. ACICS primarily accredited for-profit colleges, which tend to rely on that kind of federal funding to stay afloat.
Cindy Marten, the department's deputy secretary, made the final decision on ACICS' appeal and said the accreditor hadn't complied with government standards.
"Recognition by the Department must be reserved for agencies that adhere to high standards, just as accreditation by agencies must be reserved for institutions and programs that adhere to high standards," Marten said. "Its continuing failure to reach full compliance with this criterion alone is a sufficient basis to terminate ACICS’ recognition.”
The decision could mean an end to ACICS’ long-running battle with the federal government, which stretches back to 2016. That's when the Obama-era department tried to strip the agency of its recognition, following the closures of two massive for-profit colleges. Trouble continued to find ACICS: A USA TODAY network investigation in 2020 revealed the accreditor had approved Reagan National University, a college in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that had no students or faculty.
The decision comes at time when the Biden administration has said it would crack down on predatory colleges that take federal money and leave taxpayers without lucrative degrees.
Michael Itzkowitz, a senior fellow focused on higher education at the center-left think tank Third Way, praised the decision, though he noted it was overdue.
“While it shouldn't have taken this long, the federal bureaucracy has finally worked its course,” Itzkowitz said. “This action will save taxpayers billions of dollars that will no longer flow to underperforming institutions, not to mention the hardship that students have felt by obtaining a worthless degree from an ACICS institution."
Students rely on these agencies to “validate that the schools where they spend their time and money will meet a baseline level of quality,” said Eric Rothschild, litigation direction of the National Student Legal Defense Network, a watchdog group focused on accountability in higher education.
“It’s great to see the Department take this long-overdue action to protect students and taxpayers. We are talking about an entity that accredited a school that didn’t even exist and continues to rubberstamp some of the worst for-profit colleges.”
What is the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools?
ACICS used to be one of the largest college accreditors in the country. It oversaw 290 institutions and hundreds of thousands of students in 2016, but now it accredits just 27 institutions with about 5,000 students, according to the Education Department. Its institutions received about $110 million in federal aid in the 2020-21 fiscal year.
It also accredited dozens of schools operated by Corinthian Colleges, and separately signed off on ITT Technical Institute. Both were massive institutions that shut down in the mid-2010s with little warning, disrupting students’ lives and costing taxpayers billions. The federal government recently forgave more than $10 billion in student loan debt for students who attended both Corinthian and ITT.
The Obama administration-era Department of Education withdrew the agency's power in 2016. Following a federal court ruling, the Trump administration-era department under then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos reinstated the accreditor in 2018.
A USA TODAY network investigation in 2020, however, found the accreditor had approved Reagan National University. Links on the university’s website didn’t work, and reporters couldn’t find evidence that anyone attended or taught courses at the college. ACICS had approved the institution, though it withdrew from accreditation just a few days before USA TODAY’s investigation was published.
Following the story, the Education Department started an inquiry of the group in 2020. By 2021, the federal government again moved to strip the accreditor of federal recognition. The agency appealed the department’s findings shortly thereafter, but it took the Education Department another a year to respond. Its decision Friday ends the appeal process.
The accreditor could file a legal challenge, as they did following the 2016 decision, but it wasn't clear if the agency plans to do so.
ACICS didn't immediately return a request for comment, but it did post a statement to its website saying it was "disappointed" by the decision. The agency said it believed it was in compliance with the government's regulations, and it was "evaluating all of our options and how best to serve our institutions, including any decision to appeal the Deputy Secretary’s decision in federal district court."
What happens if my school accredited is by ACICS?
The 18-month countdown for colleges accredited by ACICS has begun regardless of the accreditor's intent to challenge the decision. On a call Friday with reporters, Education Department Undersecretary James Kvaal said three of the 27 colleges associated with ACICS already are seeking accreditation from another accreditor.
The department will require these schools to comply with new rules if they want to keep receiving federal money. Those requirements include limiting enrollment in programs that would take longer than 18 months to complete as well as warning students about the possibility of the colleges losing federal funding. In addition, the schools must create a roadmap for students about how to complete their degrees. The Education Department also published a guide for students who attend these institutions.
"While this decision may have serious implications for students at these institutions," Kvaal said, "we are committed to working with them and with our other partners to ensure students have a path forward and that quality institutions have a fair shot at finding another accrediting agency."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ACICS, college accreditor behind ITT Tech, loses federal appeal