One of the nation’s largest, and most criticized, accreditors of for-profit colleges was pushed a step closer to being shuttered on Thursday.
In a historic move, an Education Department advisory panel voted 10–3 to recommend that the government deauthorize the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. The committee came to its decision after nearly 11 hours of public testimony and deliberations, much of the time spent dissecting the numerous instances in which the accreditor failed to adequately monitor its colleges.
“When we see schools provide extremely poor outcomes for students — or even commit fraud — while maintaining accreditation, that is a black mark on the entire field,” said Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell in the opening remarks of the advisory meeting, which began on Wednesday morning.
The federal committee hearing, also known as the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, or NACIQI, took place just a few days after Education Department staff released a report also recommending that the government cut ties with the accreditor.
The recommendations aren’t binding but they are likely to carry significant weight and a clock is now ticking: A senior department official now has three months to make the ultimate decision on ACICS’ fate.
ACICS has faced growing scrutiny for the weak student outcomes of the colleges it accredits. A ProPublica analysis found that schools accredited by ACICS have the lowest graduation rates in the country and their graduates struggle the most to repay their student loans.
In the weeks leading up to Thursday’s meeting, numerous critics have called on the Education Department to revoke recognition of the accreditor, including more than a dozen state attorneys general, over 20 consumer protection and student advocacy groups, and several members of Congress.
The Department of Education’s recent report also found that ACICS came up short in monitoring potential conflicts of interest of its board members. As ProPublica reported, two-thirds of ACICS’ commissioners, who are ultimately responsible for schools’ accreditation, worked as executives at for-profit colleges.
Responding to the growing chorus of criticism, ACICS announced earlier this month that it would stop accrediting new schools while it undertook reforms, which included tougher review standards and the creation of a new committee to police conflicts of interest.
“ACICS takes seriously the concerns about the need for greater accountability and transparency in higher education,” the agency’s top executive, Anthony Bieda, said during Thursday’s hearing.
But his agency’s reforms proved too little too late.
“The new standards will not be able to make up for the damage that has been done,” said Education Department staff member Chuck Mula during the meeting.
Accreditors are supposed to regulate college quality and their stamp of approval opens the spigot to billions in federal aid dollars. Losing accreditation can be a deathblow for colleges, particularly for the many for-profit schools that rely on federal aid programs for the majority of their income.
The ultimate decision on ACICS rests with Emma Vadehra, the chief of staff of the U.S. Secretary of Education John King. Should she decide to terminate ACICS’ authority, the hundreds of schools that ACICS accredits would have 18 months to find a new accreditor. ACICS oversees 240 institutions, which enroll hundreds of thousands of students.
Most ACICS schools will easily find new accreditation within the timeframe, but not all, said the Education Department’s head of accreditation Herman Bounds.
“It’s going to be those schools that are on the cuff, mediocre, may have performance issues,” said Bounds at the hearing. “I think those schools will be looked at more closely by the accreditors.”
Bounds said the department would try to assist schools during the new accreditation process.
But if a college still can’t get accreditation, the flow of federal aid dollars would be effectively cut off.
One of the nation’s largest for-profit schools, ITT Technical Institute, has suggested in recent regulatory filings that it may struggle to secure new accreditation should ACICS lose its recognition.
“We cannot assure you that our campuses could obtain accreditation by another recognized accrediting agency within that timeframe,” a company filing says. ITT enrolls over 40,000 students and received nearly $800 million in federal aid in 2013 alone.