Administration

Federal Panel Votes to Shut Down an Accreditor Blamed for Failures of For-Profit Higher Ed

June 24, 2016

In a rare vote on Thursday, a federal advisory panel recommended denying recognition to the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, a much-maligned accrediting agency.

The recommendation reflects, in part, the U.S. Department of Education’s increasing focus on holding accreditors accountable for the performance of the colleges they oversee. But it also prompted some members of the advisory panel to wonder whether the department was trying to undermine the for-profit-college sector. Most of the institutions that the accreditor oversees are in that sector.

The panel’s action was not unexpected. Nor was it the final word on the accrediting council, which is known as Acics. But it is a serious blow and almost certainly means the Education Department will remove the council’s authority, which would require some 800 campuses to seek another accrediting body or lose access to federal student-aid dollars. Such an outcome, however, is at least 18 months away.

Thursday’s vote was taken here by the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, an 18-member panel that advises the secretary of education on accreditation matters. The panel’s recommendation followed more than 10 hours of deliberations, including testimony from Education Department analysts and dozens of third-party commenters who blasted the accreditor for its lax oversight of colleges operated by several prominent for-profit education companies, including ITT Educational Services Inc. and the now-bankrupt Corinthian Colleges Inc.

A department analysis found the accrediting council had failed to comply with more than 20 areas of federal regulation. The analysis dinged Acics for failing to verify the job-placement data of the institutions it oversees, failing to establish policies to prevent conflicts of interest among members of its governing board, and failing to promptly sanction institutions accused of wrongdoing.

Not only were the accreditor’s practices inadequate, said the department analysts’ report, but there was little possibility that the accreditor could make necessary changes within a year, as required by federal regulations.

In response, officials of the accreditor said they had made several changes in recent months, including firing the agency’s chief executive and appointing a "blue-ribbon panel" to recommend ways to overhaul policies and processes.

But those measures were "too little, too late," said several members of the federal advisory committee who were dissatisfied with the agency’s unwillingness in the past to deal with what they saw as its failures.

"Trust is critical, and when I think of trust, track record weighs in heavier than promises," said Jill Derby, a committee member who is a consultant with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

‘Elephant in the Room’

The committee’s vote sets a new process in motion. A senior Education Department official now has 90 days to make a final decision on the accreditor’s status. If that official follows the staff and committee recommendations, the agency’s recognition will expire in 18 months. But the outcome is likely to take much longer. The agency can appeal the official’s decision to the secretary of education, who has unlimited time to consider a decision. If the accreditor loses an appeal to the secretary, it could also file a lawsuit against the department.

Thursday’s deliberations followed nearly a year of intense scrutiny applied to the accreditor by news organizations, think tanks, student-advocacy groups, state attorneys general, members of Congress, and the Education Department.

“What the heck took you so long to address the leadership issue, to bring in the kind of leadership that provided confidence you had gotten the message and that things were changing?”
Chief among the complaints about the accreditor are that it failed to sanction several institutions that remained fully accredited even while under state or federal investigation. Committee members asked Acics officials numerous times why they didn’t act sooner to change course.

"What the heck took you so long to address the leadership issue, to bring in the kind of leadership that provided confidence you had gotten the message and that things were changing?" asked Ralph A. Wolff, a committee member and the former head of a regional accrediting agency.

Lawrence Leak, chairman of the accrediting council’s Board of Directors, said that the former head of the agency, Albert C. Gray, had presented the board with a rosy picture of the council’s relationship with the Education Department and of the nature of the investigations by state officials. That changed, he said, when an Education Department official attended a board meeting in the spring and offered an unvarnished view of how the accreditor was seen by federal regulators.

"You could have heard a pin drop," Mr. Leak said, describing the board’s reaction.

But several members of the federal advisory committee raised concerns that politics might have played a heavy role in the department analysts’ negative report on Acics.

The "elephant in the room," said one member, Richard F. O’Donnell, was the perception that the Education Department was trying to undermine proprietary colleges by issuing a heavy-handed staff report and involving officials outside the regular accreditor-review process.

Arthur J. Rothkopf, another committee member, said the fact that the involvement of policy-making department officials in the analysis made it appear as if the final decision had already been made.

Herman Bounds Jr., director of the department’s Accreditation Group, which handles accreditation-recognition reports, said it was no secret that his staff had consulted with others in the department because of the large volume of information that had to be considered. But the staff’s recommendation to deny Acics its recognition was based on the evidence, not pressure from policy makers, he said.

In the end, concerns about the accreditor outweighed other matters, and the committee voted, 10 to 3, to deny recognition.

"There is no question in my mind that the issues which the agency is charged with failing to address are serious and substantive," said Mr. Wolff. "I cannot ignore that there was a period of several years in which the agency failed to pay attention to systemic problems at a number of institutions."

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.