The new leader of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, once one of the largest national accreditation agencies, wants the council to resume its role as the gatekeeper between colleges and billions of dollars in federal financial aid.
The Obama administration ended its relationship with the council last year after Education Department staff and an independent advisory board deemed the group incapable of strengthening years of lax oversight of troubled for-profit colleges. The council waged an unsuccessful legal fight to stop the department’s action, while the 300 colleges in its care sought a new accreditor. Many higher education experts had expected the council to plead its case for reinstatement to the Trump administration, and that’s exactly what’s happening.
This week, Michelle Edwards, the new president and chief executive of the council, wrote a letter to members saying her agency will submit a formal petition to return as a national accreditor to the Education Department by Oct. 1. She said the council has asked to be included on the spring meeting agenda of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, the independent advisory board that had recommended the action against the council.
“ACICS is taking the steps necessary to become, over time, a leader among accreditors,” Edwards said in the letter. “We have begun communicating with the Department of Education about the meaningful changes made to date and our plans for maintaining and expanding those reforms in the future.”
Department of Education officials did not respond to requests for comment regarding their conversations with the council.
In the letter, Edwards touts reforms the council has made in response to concerns raised by the previous administration. Those include overhauling its collection of school data and greater focus on student outcomes. In the months before it was ousted, the council heralded increased on-site evaluations, removal of board members with conflicts of interest, new leadership and stepped up enforcement actions. Its threat to revoke the accreditation of ITT Technical Institute set in motion events that ultimately led the for-profit schools to shut down.
But those efforts failed to quell objections to the council’s participation in the federal student aid program. Liberal lawmakers, state attorneys general and consumer advocates said the accrediting agency allowed schools accused of fraud or possessing abysmal graduation rates to receive millions of dollars in federal loans and grants, despite the risks to students and taxpayers.
“I’m both skeptical that the improvements are real, but also worried that this administration has no compunction against being a rubber stamp,” said Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
The accrediting council stands a fair chance of being reinstated under the current administration, given the policy decisions Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made in favor of the for-profit college sector. And the independent board that advises the Education Department is now chaired by Arthur Keiser, co-founder of a chain of for-profit colleges bearing his name.
Miller said even if the ousted accrediting agency gets on the advisory board’s agenda, it may be too late. Education officials gave colleges 18 months to find a new accreditor to prevent students from losing access to government loans and grants. Even though Congress is pushing for an extension, the deadline is currently June 2018.
The accreditor’s troubles came to a head after it asserted Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit chain that state and federal authorities said committed fraud, was in good enough standing to get billions of dollars in taxpayer money. The council renewed two of Corinthian’s campuses and authorized a new campus a few months before the Education Department forced the school to close or sell its 120 locations.
In the aftermath of the Corinthian collapse, the Obama administration became increasingly critical of the accrediting process. The government has depended on private-sector accreditors to be the stewards of federal financial aid, the lifeblood of colleges and universities, since the early 1950s. Each accreditor sets its own standards, which are reviewed by an advisory board at the Education Department, yet the department has no say in how the agencies do their job. Still, the department can deny an accrediting agency the recognition it needs to operate.
In the months since the ousted accreditor lost its recognition, many of the colleges it accredits have sought a stamp of approval from another group, the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training. Schools in the process of changing over may see no benefit in returning to their old accreditor — even if it is successful in being reinstated, Miller said.
In an interview Thursday, Edwards said the council understands that many of its member colleges are well on their way to becoming accredited by other agencies and is not advising any to wait. Still, she is holding out hope.
“As we remain optimistic on the opportunity to demonstrate our compliance to the department through this new petition review, we would hope our member institutions would consider maintaining ACICS accreditation as a reflection of their commitment to the agency,” she said.