While a major accreditor of for-profit schools has won a conditional reprieve from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and is pledging to continue correcting its deficiencies, some observers say the decision prioritizes the interests of schools over the well-being of students.
“The secretary’s decision is a pretty clear indicator of her commitment to protecting colleges, not students,” said Clare McCann, deputy director for federal policy with New America’s Higher Education Initiative.
DeVos – who had ties to the for-profit postsecondary education industry prior to joining the Trump administration and appointed some from that sector to advisory positions – is routinely criticized for decisions and policy proposals that seem to favor for-profit schools, even as many have been under fire in recent years for predatory practices. Last week, she announced reinstatement of federal recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) based on the recommendation of a senior official at the education department, which she oversees.
ACICS, whose recognition was withdrawn by the Obama administration in December 2016 because of compliance failures, accredits for-profit colleges and universities. The agency was overseeing Corinthian Colleges and ITT Educational Services when they collapsed in 2015 and 2016, respectively, under the weight of consumer lawsuits, government investigations and heavy sanctions.
The closures left thousands of students suddenly without a school, contributing to a complicated student-loan debt crisis that has emerged as one of the nation’s biggest financial concerns.
A federal judge set the stage for ACICS’ restoration last spring, ruling that the education department failed to consider some critical evidence before withdrawing recognition. The judge ordered the education department to review the matter.
According to a nine-page order DeVos issued Nov. 21, ACICS must submit a report within 12 months detailing full compliance concerning two identified deficiencies, as well as annual “monitoring reports” regarding four other criteria, which the 106-year-old, D.C.-based accreditor has pledged to do.
“We are gratified by Secretary DeVos’ decision to reinstate ACICS as a recognized accreditor,” ACICS president Michelle Edwards said in a formal statement. “We have consistently maintained that ACICS met the criteria as established by the department for federal recognition, including the ability to remedy any deficiencies noted by the department. While it has been a challenging two-year process, we understand and appreciate the department’s need to be extremely thorough in its evaluation of our compliance. Now that the review is completed, we are eager to move forward and commit all of our energy to reinvigorating and strengthening the organization for a strong future.”
Edwards added that ACICS has spent the last two years implementing “significant reforms designed to address concerns and enhance our ability to hold schools accountable for meaningful student outcomes.”
“We are committed to continually improving and evolving our processes to ensure we not only remain in compliance with current federal requirements, but also foster an environment of rigorous quality and continuous improvement, both at ACICS and our accredited schools,” she said. “ACICS has set as a goal to become a leader among accreditors, and I am looking forward to focusing all of my energy on living up to that goal.”
However, McCann and other observers are skeptical.
“It may not be surprising, but it’s incredibly disappointing to learn that the secretary is no better than abdicating her responsibility to taxpayers to score a few political wins,” said McCann. “There’s no question Secretary DeVos has made favors to for-profit colleges a hallmark of her department. This is just the latest, and one of the most egregious, examples of her commitment to serving colleges over students.”
DeVos should have been transparent in the reconsideration process, releasing any documentation that would indicate that ACICS has improved, McCann said.
“Without evidence of reliable, credible information,” McCann said, “Secretary DeVos is dealing in concealed documents to help her advisers’ friends.”
One reason then-education secretary Dr. John B. King, Jr. withdrew ACICS’ recognition in late 2016 was because it appeared that the accreditor, who was deficient in more than half of nearly 100 areas, would be unable to come into compliance within a year, noted Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress.
“This administration has demonstrated time and again that there is no level of performance that is so unacceptable that it should result in consequences,” said Miller.
Two years after being found out of compliance in manifold areas, ACICS remains not in full compliance, and allowing them to continue to monitor schools for educational quality doesn’t make sense – particularly when they accredit institutions that no other accreditors will, pointed out Michael Itzkowitz, a senior fellow at Third Way who focuses on accountability in higher education at the think tank.
King’s decision “was spot on,” said Itzkowitz, who served about six years in the education department, including a stint as director of the College Scorecard in 2015-16. “ACICS has demonstrated routinely bad outcomes year after year for the students it serves. This decision will ultimately result in a lot of students leaving institutions that leave them unable to earn a decent living or pay down their educational debt after they attend. And taxpayers will be footing the bill for higher ed programs that show little to no return on investment.”
Miller said he hasn’t seen enough evidence of improvement to feel confident that ACICS is qualified to continue being a gatekeeper for financial aid in an industry that involves hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars a year.
“Basically, they made a bunch of cosmetic changes to sound like they were being tougher, without really raising the standards or closing off problematic loopholes,” said Miller.
Ultimately, Itzkowitz said, DeVos’ decision is “a slap in the face to students and taxpayers” and “taints all accreditors by allowing poor-performing accreditors to continue to exist.”
Neither he nor Miller has confidence that ACICS will live up to full compliance.
“I have confidence,” Miller said, “that this administration will do what it can to rubber-stamp this agency through.”
LaMont Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @DrLaMontJones