June 5, 2019

DeVos Effort To Save College Accreditor ACICS Is On Shaky Ground

DeVos Effort To Save College Accreditor ACICS Is On Shaky Ground

When Diane Auer Jones, Betsy DeVos’s top higher education aide, testified last month before a House Oversight subcommittee, among the deceptive statements she made was her suggestion that a federal court decision compelled the Department of Education to reinstate the controversial for-profit college accreditor ACICS as a validator of schools’ eligibility for federal student grants and loans. Jones testified that “it was not the [Trump] administration that decided to change the decision of the prior [Obama] administration”; rather, she said, the Department reinstated ACICS because “the courts made that decision.” (I also testified at the hearing and discussed ACICS.)

The Obama administration, in late 2016, de-recognized ACICS, acting on the recommendation of both staff and an outside advisory committee, in the face of overwhelming evidence that the accreditor was asleep at the switch in certifying awful for-profit chains like EDMC, Kaplan, Corinthian Colleges, and ITT Tech; ACICS-accredited schools had poor graduation and job placement rates and other measures of quality and integrity, and many of them have since collapsed as a result of their abuses.

The facts undermine Jones’s House testimony: In a lawsuit brought by ACICS contesting that 2016 Obama decision, a federal judge in 2017 only ordered the Department to consider certain evidence that was submitted by ACICS after the agency deadline; the judge did not vacate the 2016 decision or direct the Department to restore ACICS’s status. Following that court decision, DeVos temporarily restored ACICS and appointed Jones to review ACICS’s candidacy. Jones, last September, attacked the Obama decision as driven by “a presumption of guilt,” found ACICS is in compliance with 19 of the 21 relevant criteria, and recommended that DeVos give ACICS another year to come into full compliance. DeVos soon after affirmed Jones’s report and recommendation. The judge had required only a review of some additional evidence, not DeVos and Jones’s sharp reversal of the outcome.

But Jones’ 2018 evaluation, it turned out, was also marked by deception.  She cited nine letters from other institutional accreditors as “important evidence of ACICS’s wide acceptance.” But there were no such letters, as eight of those nine accreditors later told Congress. The Department said the error was “inadvertent,” and posted a “correction” that again mischaracterized letters from other accreditors to overstate their support for ACICS. Deputy Secretary of Education Mick Zais then blatantly disregarded his duties in pressuring the Department’s acting inspector general, Sandra Bruce, to curb an investigation of Jones’s restoration of ACICS, and then acted to replace Bruce with a Department of Education lawyer, before that firing was reversed.

Beyond the dishonest decision-making, there are conflicts of interest here: Diane Jones previously worked as a senior executive at Career Education Corporation, most of whose schools were once accredited by ACICS, and consulted for CECU, the trade association that once harbored many of the worst ACICS schools. Betsy DeVos was invested in Apollo Investment Corporation, which owned a stake in Delta Educational Systems, a chain of for-profit colleges also accredited by ACICS.

But as the DeVos-Jones team moves to restore the unworthy ACICS, the Department and the accreditor are facing other hurdles.

This week two former students at ACICS-accredited Virginia College sued DeVos, asserting that her decision to reinstate ACICS, which they contend was unlawful, kept them enrolled at the school and then locked them out in the cold, deep in student loan debt, when poor-performing Virginia College, and other schools operated by Education Corp. of America, abruptly closed in December.

Also this week, the recognition committee of the non-profit umbrella group Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) held a meeting to consider whether to keep ACICS in its fold, another status critical to ACICS staying in business. At the session, a number of the CHEA committee members asked tough questions of ACICS president Michelle Edwards and the three staff members who joined her at the table. For example: If you’re running a $2.1 million budget deficit this year, and pledging to cut costs, how will you have enough staff to ensure adequate oversight of schools’ educational quality and other performance?  If you need to increase revenues, and the main way to do so is to add more schools, how do you avoid again degrading your standards to bring new schools in? Why did you miss school abuses, such as tolerance for rampant student plagiarism, that state regulators were able to uncover?  Why don’t you effectively evaluate graduation rates, as other accreditors do?

The ACICS representatives told CHEA that ACICS now accredits 74 institutions and 119 campuses serving about 74,000 students, way down from its peak of 269 institutions with 527,000 students. After the Obama administration’s 2016 decision, many of the remaining ACICS-accredited schools managed to find new accreditors; many of the ones who did not were flatly rejected by other accreditors because of concerns about quality and integrity.

CHEA won’t be making public its decision on ACICS until January.  Its meeting this week was technically open to the public, but wasn’t publicized. After the meeting, I asked CHEA president Judith Eaton if the group received many written comments regarding its ACICS decision, and she said they had received six, five from organizations and one from “an individual.” Eaton said CHEA had no plans to post the comments on its website, so I have collected the ones I know of here. All of them urge CHEA to end recognition of ACICS:

Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Jeff Merkley D-OR), and Dick Durbin (D-IL); and Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (D-MI), Mark Takano (D-CA), Susie Lee (D-NV), and Joaquin Castro (D-TX)

Veterans Education Success

The Century Foundation

The Center for American Progress

New America

National Student Legal Defense Network

Read the letters, including this account of how ACICS today seems to remain clueless about the need to step up standards. Read other evidence (collected here) of ACICS’s awfulness.

And ask: What, exactly, is the point of Betsy DeVos saving an accreditor that has performed so poorly and enabled so many for-profit college abuses? To save the jobs of the nine remaining staff members?  To keep federal aid flowing to, and students enrolling in, the remaining 74 ACICS-accredited schools, many of which leave students worse off than when they started, and many of which were recently rejected by other accreditors?  Probably it is, above all, to signal to all accreditors that the DeVos Department doesn’t want them hassling for-profit colleges too much over quality and integrity.

Fortunately, other accreditors seem to have decided that the Trump-DeVos-Jones mindset may be only temporary, and some have been taking tougher stances against troubled chains like Bridgepoint Education and the now-collapsed Dream Center Education Holdings. Maybe CHEA will follow on that path by dropping ACICS. With Betsy DeVos and Diane Jones seemingly all-in for predatory schools, students need all the protectors they can get.