August 9, 2021

Education Department Hearing Exposes Divisions on Higher Ed Abuses

Education Department Hearing Exposes Divisions on Higher Ed Abuses

1. Collegial higher ed and its consequences

When I first got involved with higher education issues, about ten years ago, I observed a remarkable division: Congressional investigations and numerous media reports were highlighting blatant deceptions and abuses of students by numerous for-profit colleges. Yet in the rooms where higher education officials gathered — at Department of Education events and association meetings — the wealthy barons and executives tied to this predatory industry were treated with respect and deference by government officials and many people in traditional higher education. Their schools were referred to as “proprietary,” rather than “for-profit,” and their numerous lobbyists would sneer and shake their heads if anyone in the room dared to interrupt the harmonious conversation with unpleasant talk about dishonest and coercive recruiting operations and veterans and single mothers buried in student loan debt. 

Faced with efforts to impose tougher regulations aimed at curbing predatory college abuses, officials representing traditional higher education — the denizens of Washington’s “One Dupont” office building — didn’t always seem motivated to protect vulnerable students or eliminate unscrupulous competitors. Instead, they often seemed ready to join forces with owners and lobbyists for the worst-behaving for-profit colleges to get government and its paperwork off their backs — which was absurd because many schools on both sides of the for-profit/non-profit divide get most of their money from taxpayers. 

Some on the U.S. Department of Education staff, no matter who was in the White House, contributed to this don’t-rock-the-boat environment. While the Department sometimes did take a stand and penalize an egregious abuser, often it was easier to check boxes and move along than to make trouble for a for-profit college, because these schools had expensive lawyers and politically-connected owners who could motivate a powerful member of Congress — a beneficiary of the school’s campaign donations — to call the Department bosses and ask what underling was making all this trouble for a job creator in their state.

And some Department political appointees and career staff might have been motivated to go easier on the for-profits because they contemplated trading on their experience and taking lucrative jobs with the industry someday. It wasn’t just George W. Bush staffers who walked through that revolving door; some Obama education officials did it as well. 

The collegially corrupt higher education climate, combined with the legal, lobbying, and political power of the for-profit colleges, has created in the system a strong bias in favor of protecting institutions and failing to take meaningful action against them until the evidence is overwhelming — and thus, necessarily, also a strong bias against protecting students and taxpayers from waste, fraud, and abuse, even where there is severe and ongoing harm.  

It took the Obama administration nearly its entire eight-year term to start to overcome this corrupted culture and begin taking serious steps against predatory schools. But at the end of Obama’s tenure, there was still a long way to go; many egregiously bad acting schools continued to operate with impunity. 

Then Donald Trump was elected, and his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos undid all the reforms and tailored policy to the wish list of the worst for-profit schools. The predatory barons were again empowered and emboldened.

At Department of Education rule-making negotiations in 2019, traditional higher ed officials joined forces with for-profit college lobbyists to bully representatives for consumers into accepting a regulatory deal highly favorable to predatory schools. 

2. NACIQI in the Biden-Harris era

2021, however, looked to be a year of change on this front. As candidates, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris made a point of pledging to hold predatory colleges accountable, and the administration’s appointments at the Department of Education include many reformers with strong records of seeking accountability for college abuses.

The clash between the reformist effort and the old ways of doing things boiled up at the late July semi-annual meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), an eighteen-member panel of outside experts tasked by the Department of Education with reviewing the performance of accrediting agencies — the non-governmental groups that serve as gatekeepers for federal student aid by evaluating the quality and integrity of the nation’s colleges.

Without the approval of an accreditor, a college can’t access the federal student grants and loans that keep so many schools alive. At the same time, without the approval of the Department of Education, an accreditor can’t stay in that business.

In a complex process, NACIQI is charged with reviewing the recommendations of a division of the Department of Education, called the Accreditation Group, and then, by vote, making its own recommendations, which then in turn are considered by a designated senior Department official. Accreditors who don’t like the outcome of that process can appeal to the Secretary of Education for yet another review.

The NACIQI members are a mix of education experts, non-profit school officials, for-profit college owners, a current student, and others. Six are appointed by the Secretary of Education, and the rest of the appointments are split between congressional Democrats and Republicans.

NACIQI has mostly leaned toward the genteel, collegial, non-confrontational, non-reform side of things, rarely raising strong objections to the Department staff’s usual findings that everything was cool at various accrediting agencies under evaluation, even as some colleges under their review used deceptive advertising, lied to prospective students about job opportunities and starting salaries, falsified financial aid information and job placement information, offered poor-quality instruction, and left many graduates and dropouts alike buried in debt, with no improvement in career prospects. 

Then something dramatic occurred, as part of the Obama administration’s end-of-term conversion: The Department staff, in 2016, recommended termination of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), accreditor to many for-profit colleges, amid overwhelming evidence that egregious predatory abuses against students and taxpayers had occurred at numerous schools under ACICS’s watch.

But when the Department under Obama sought to dump ACICS, a few NACIQI members sought to resist.

3. Chairman Keiser

The center of that resistance was Floridian Arthur Keiser, appointed to NACIQI in 2010 by House Republicans and later elected by his fellow members as the NACIQI chair. Keiser is not a disinterested party when it comes to issues of college accountability. He is the self-styled “Chancellor and CEO” of Keiser University, a former for-profit college that he sold to a non-profit institution he controlled, in a highly dubious arrangement that has increased his wealth in multiple ways. He is also the owner of Southeastern College, a for-profit school that somehow shares staff and resources with the non-profit college Keiser runs.

Keiser has long been a political powerhouse in Washington and his home state, doling out campaign contributions, chairing the national lobbying association of for-profit colleges, and placing his minions on a range of state oversight boards. But his schools have faced multiple law enforcement investigations, and accusations by former staff, over its recruiting practices, and his own mother is now suing him for fraud over the school empire they founded together.  

At the 2016 NACIQI meeting, Keiser pressed to save ACICS, essentially arguing that the agency was too big to fail. But he failed, and the panel voted 10-3 to terminate the accreditor, a recommendation later ratified by the Department of Education.

After Donald Trump won, the anti-student education secretary Betsy DeVos worked to bring ACICS back. But in 2021, faced with additional evidence that the accreditor was failing to do its job, the Department moved again to terminate, and NACIQI agreed, 11-1, at its March meeting. Again Keiser offered resistance, although this time much milder. Keiser didn’t vote on the final outcome, because the NACIQI chair generally votes only to break a tie.

4. NACIQI curbs the Department on ACCSC

Omnipresent college owner Keiser was, however, nowhere to found on July 27 when NACIQI began to discuss, on its first of three days of meetings, whether to endorse the Department staff’s recommendation that another accreditor of many troubled for-profit colleges, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC), be approved for the maximum renewal period of five years.

Keiser exited the online meeting and did not participate in the proceeding, presumably because ACCSC is the accreditor of his own Southeastern College.

With Keiser gone, some NACIQI members started raising questions about the quality of ACCSC’s oversight, pointing to poor outcomes and predatory abuses at some ACCSC-approved schools. Kathleen Alioto noted ACCSC’s accreditation of Full Sail University, Miller-Motte, Universal Technical Institute, Lincoln Tech, and Stevens-Henager.  She noted that many of those schools were obtaining federal taxpayer dollars close to the 90 percent revenue ceiling imposed by federal law, and that many former students of the schools had huge educational loan debt.

Alioto’s concerns were backed up later when an outside public commenter, Michael Itzkowitz of the think tank Third Way, presented to the committee members his report finding that 69 of 174 ACCSC schools showed low-income students failing to out-earn high school graduates 10 years later; that is, many ACCSC schools leave students worse off than when they enrolled.

Robert Shireman, a former Deputy Under Secretary at the Department who was appointed to NACIQI by House Democrats last year, focused his colleagues on abuses and law enforcement problems at several ACCSC schools. Those included Stevens-Henager, Independence University, and other colleges operated by the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, which shut down its schools last week, after ACCSC cut off accreditation in April and the Department of Education slowed the flow of cash to the school.

ACCSC’s termination of CEHE came in the wake of an August 2020 Colorado trial court ruling, in a case filed by that state’s attorney general, that CEHE and its top executives engaged in systematic deceptions of students. But evidence of abuses at CEHE schools had been public, from numerous sources and law enforcement efforts, for nearly a decade, so the question was, as a report from Marissa Alayna Navarro of the Center for American Progress suggested, why did ACCSC take so long, and allow so many more students to enroll at these awful institutions?

Shireman also pointed to ACCSC’s oversight of the troubled Premier Education Group, which ACCSC dropped only after the Department had terminated federal aid following a shady change of ownership, and predatory Vatterott College, which was ACCSC-accredited through years of deceptive practices, until just before it collapsed under the weight of its misconduct. 

(Shireman is a long-time friend and colleague of mine, and I was tweeting concerns about some of the same schools during the NACIQI meeting. Shireman also has complained to the Internal Revenue Service that Keiser University does not deserve the non-profit status it received, because the school, he contended, continues to be operated mainly to benefit Arthur Keiser.)

The Department’s staff report hadn’t addressed any of the concerns raised by Alioto and Shireman, or Itzkowitz, or Navarro. For all anyone reading the Department report knew, there were no controversies or serious problems at all. Essentially, the staff sent ACCSC a questionnaire, and the accreditor filled it out. And indeed, the public was provided only with an even more meaningless summary of the staff’s findings. Although the law requires the Department to make public everything it provides to NACIQI members, Department staff repeatedly rebuffed Shireman’s efforts to release the records in advance of the meeting, and those records remain secret still.

Herman Bounds, the head of the Department’s accreditation unit, told the NACIQI members that the kinds of student outcome issues raised by Shireman and Alioto are matters for the Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA), and outside of his unit’s purview.

But FSA is charged with looking into schools, not accreditors. And even when FSA investigates and takes a strong stand against an accreditor, the accreditation unit may not incorporate that reality into its own evaluation, as with FSA cutting off aid to the Premier schools and slowing the flow of cash to the CEHE schools, all of those institutions under ACCSC’s supervision. 

Bounds and his team also said that the accreditation unit doesn’t “google around” for information on an accreditor or its schools and doesn’t review items like IRS 990 forms that provide financial information for non-profit schools. 

Bounds’s office has a tough job, with dozens of accreditors and thousands of schools under them. The Department, also, must proceed carefully when it does move against an accreditor, because a legal minefield awaits if the accreditor sues, as was reinforced when ACICS won a partial court victory against the Department after it was terminated the first time.

Bounds is capable of being a persuasive champion of holding accreditors accountable. He did exactly that when he presented the Department’s case against ACICS at the 2016 NACIQI meeting. And in that proceeding, the Department, under the Obama administration, did act as if the performance and integrity of schools under an accreditor was a relevant factor. 

At last month’s session, however, it didn’t seem like Bounds’s team was getting input from the Biden appointees that more robust oversight was a good idea; nor did it seem the unit was choosing on its own to act in the spirit of the accountability commitment that candidates Biden and Harris promised.

Claude Pressnell, Jr., a NACIQI member who is the president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, chaired the ACCSC discussion in Keiser’s absence. He insisted that the concerns raised by Shireman, regarding information about ACCSC that the Department didn’t consider, was outside of what the law directs NACIQI to do, and should be reserved for policy discussions at the end of the meeting. 

Shireman called the approach to overseeing accreditors seemingly taken by the Department staff, and endorsed by Pressnell, “dangerously myopic.” 

Shireman later shared on Twitter that Department officials had confirmed for him their view that there were no restrictions on the information NACIQI could consider in its deliberations and base its recommendations on. The officials noted that Department procedures, to ensure fairness, contemplate providing the accreditor an opportunity to respond to such new information before the Department renders its final decision.

As I argue in a comment I have submitted to the Department today, looking ahead to a future NACIQI meeting, misconduct of schools that an accreditor is charged with monitoring is indeed, under the applicable law, relevant to the Department’s, and NACIQI’s, review of an accreditor’s performance.

Another NACIQI member, David Eubanks, asked an ACCSC representative in the meeting, if a school has a 30 percent graduation rate and high student debt loads, is the system working? ACCSC responded that some students don’t finish for reasons unrelated to educational quality, and maybe the student will return.

Michale McComis, ACCSC’s CEO, said some people wouldn’t agree with Shireman about the problems at those ACCSC schools, and that “our standards meet the federal requirements.” He touted the many measures ACCSC uses to gauge student outcomes. “I’m not sure you’ll find another accreditor” that does this, he said. But that didn’t explain the poor outcomes at so many ACCSC schools.

When Shireman pressed on CEHE, arguing that the company’s dishonesty was a violation of accreditor standards, McComis said, “I can’t really speak” to that issue.

When it came time for the Department to allow third-party comments on ACCSC, Barmak Nassirian — a knowledgable policy expert who long worked for One Dupont higher ed organizations, but now can speak more freely as a newly-hired staff member of the advocacy and research group Veterans Education Success — told the meeting that the Department believes accreditation is working because they base it on “procedural compliance” and that its approach is “oblivious to outcomes.”

McComis simply declined to offer a response to Nassirian, Itzkowitz, or other public commenters.

When the committee’s debate on ACCSC then began, Alioto said she couldn’t support renewing the accreditor, citing the poor student outcomes at a large proportion of the schools the agency oversees. Eubanks also said he wouldn’t support the staff recommendation of five more years; “it sticks in my craw,” he said. NACIQI member Ronnie Booth, a retired community college president, said Shireman had put troubling information in the meeting chat space, and he couldn’t vote for five years for ACCSC.

Shireman said there was inadequate information to decide, and he moved to renew ACCSC for a single year while the Department investigated. 

Then Jennifer Blum, a NACIQI member who is a for-profit college industry lawyer (formerly in-house at Laureate Education), organized a pushback. She said, somehow, “What the department found was a pretty clean record” for ACCSC.

But that was because, clearly, the Department didn’t really look.

However, Blum was right that the Department staff was owed better guidance about what was expected of them. “If we’re going to go through the process of doing one year here,” for an ACCSC extension, “we better nail down exactly what criteria we’re asking the agency to come back to.”

Realizing that many of the NACIQI members were not going to recommend five years, Blum bargained, suggesting that three years and then “three or fours years” was more appropriate. 

Blum’s effort succeeded, and the panel compromised, voting to recommend a three year renewal. By a second vote, the members narrowly rejected asking the Department for a compliance review of the accreditor. 

Although it was thus watered down, NACIQI’s rejection and extensive questioning of the Department staff’s recommendation seemed like a major development. Last summer, the NACIQI members did take a strong pro-student stand in rejecting an outrageous effort by Betsy DeVos’s political appointees to unjustly punish another accreditor, Higher Learning Commission, for actually doing its job with respect to a shaky school chain, Dream Center Education Holdings. But last month’s NACIQI effort to hold ACCSC accountable, overruling the Department staff, was a much bigger deal, a divergence from NACIQI’s historically just swallowing bland staff reports from a parallel universe that ignores student outcomes and predatory practices. 

5. NACIQI backs down

With ACCSC resolved, NACIQI turned, at the end of its first day, to reviewing another accreditor, Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Again, the staff recommended five more years. But Shireman expressed concern that ABHES continues to accredit a Florida-based, mostly online school called Ultimate Medical Academy. That school was formerly accredited by discredited ACICS, and formerly staffed by officials of disgraced Trump University. UMA also engaged in a shady conversion from for-profit to non-profit. More than a dozen UMA staff have told me of serious predatory abuses there.

With no other panelists bringing forward information on the accreditor, and the Department raising no issues, NACIQI endorsed the five year term for ABHES. 

The next morning, chairman Keiser began by delivering a speech, lecturing his fellow NACIQI members for probing the accreditors too hard. Keiser announced, “We are here to review petitions and staff recommendations,” suggesting that the NACIQI members should not consider anything beyond what the Department staff puts in front of them. He claimed there was a “due process” issue with NACIQI considering outside evidence. He said, “the staff work hard,” implying it was an affront to the staff to burden them with real-world evidence of accreditor shortcomings. He also warned the panelists, “I strongly suggest you limit emailing each other,” in the course of the NACIQI meeting. 

Keiser’s critique was grounded in his own preferences but not the reality of NACIQI’s lawful boundaries, as the Department staff had explained them to Shireman.

Keiser’s apparent effort to intimidate fellow NACIQI members was particularly inappropriate because he was clearly reacting to the panel’s review of ACCSC the day before — a matter from which he presumably recused himself, as Department ethics standards would have required. For Keiser to rebuke NACIQI members for asking responsible questions regarding his own for-profit school’s accreditor was a travesty.

Keiser called his comments a “point of personal privilege.” 

But then the ultra-wealthy Keiser, who once at a NACIQI meeting casually mentioned his ownership of multiple homes as he defended an accreditor that watched as predatory schools ruined the lives of low-income people, has tended to rule the committee with a sense of entitlement, as well as a bias against institutional accountability. At a previous meeting, he dismissed Alioto’s concerns about an accreditor issue as improper “political” commentary, and then proceeded to argue the other side of the same issue. A smaller, but still telling, point: At last month’s meeting, Keiser repeatedly chastised others on the call for failing to mute their background noise, yet he himself, unmuted, could be heard shuffling around objects on his overloaded desk, breathing loudly, and mumbling interjected retorts to other speakers, causing WebEx’s sound detector to repeatedly shift the video from the current speaker to chairman Keiser. 

Still, Keiser’s admonishment, on top of assertions by Blum and others, seemed to trigger a reaction: Over the next two days, NACIQI endorsed almost every Department recommendation for each accreditor under review, despite troubling cases of bad actors overseen by the various agencies. As if the panelists now, on the whole, felt NACIQI had gone for enough, or too far, in judging ACCSC. 

For example, the American Bar Association had accredited three for-profit law schools owned by private equity firm Sterling Partners — law schools that promised big dreams but left many former students deep in debt, without legal jobs. The Department eventually cut off aid to two of them, Charlotte School of Law and Florida Coastal, and the third, Arizona Summit, shut down.

NACIQI ratified the staff recommendation to give the ABA five more years, and by an 8-7 vote it rejected a motion to require a monitoring report, with Keiser casting the tie-breaking deciding vote against accountability. 

Another accreditor on the NACIQI meeting agenda, the Council on Occupational Education, continues to accredit Florida Career College, a horrible for-profit chain that is being sued for focusing predatory abuses on Black students. More than a dozen FCC employees have told me about egregious deceptive practices, fraud, and dismal conditions at the schools.

When Shireman raised the issue of FCC, Keiser resumed his effort to block discussions about predatory institutions, saying that asking the Department to review COE’s handling of FCC was “picking on one school” and “getting into the weeds.” But Shireman persisted, and although NACIQI agreed to give COE five more years, it voted unanimously to require a compliance report in 12 months. (Keiser didn’t vote.) 

Of course the Department should not automatically terminate an accreditor for the misconduct of a single school it oversees. But the Department should take such abuses into account, investigate the failings of accreditor oversight, and effectively hold accreditors accountable for institutions’ misconduct, abuse, and violations that occur on their watch.

News reports showed that another accreditor up for NACIQI review that day, the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM) had approved, among other institutions, AAAOM, a Minnesota school now under investigation regarding allegations of prostitution, human trafficking, and fraud.

In the NACIQI debate on this mess, some members focused on past cases, such as Penn State and Michigan State, where accreditors did not face accountability from NACIQI for egregious abuses at their schools. Jennifer Blum, the for-profit college lawyer, argued for maintaining that approach, stating that “unless we’re going to start holding accreditors accountable for admissions scandals, fraternity hazing, sex trafficking,” NACIQI should not hold the acupuncture accreditor accountable.

Shireman, though, argued that “if there’s anything that should prompt a death penalty for the school, it is sex trafficking.” But ACAOM did not dump this school, and still NACIQI endorsed the Department staff recommendation to renew recognition for five years, contingent upon a compliance report due in 12 months. Five NACIQI members registered their concern by abstaining.

6. NACIQI debates its role

On the third day of NACIQI meetings, after the accreditor reviews were done, the promised discussion of policy ensued. There, the renewed primacy of the old higher ed establishment was re-affirmed, with representatives of more traditional higher ed joining forces with the for-profit owners to slow the reform movement. Their sympathies focused on concerns that accrediting agencies were being unfairly ambushed; they seemed less concerned that the public was being kept in the dark by the Department’s concealment of documents, let alone that taxpayers were being ripped off and students’ lives ruined by predatory schools that some accreditors have let run wild. 

Benedict College president Roslyn Clark Artis declared that the problem was her fellow NACIQI panelists not understanding their responsibilities. Artis said some members of the committee were too focused on the problems of specific schools. She said members were failing to tie their concerns to specific accreditor regulations. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she scoffed. Artis suggested that training was in order.

Another member, Mary Ellen Petrisko, a former accrediting agency head, complained that some on NACIQI were making unrealistic demands of accreditors. She said accreditors are there primarily to assess academic quality and “they’re not criminal investigators.”  Petrisko also suggested colleges have no control over student outcomes, and that what happens to students is based on their choices. 

Robert Mayes, a NACIQI member who is the CEO of a for-profit college chain, and who was the sole vote at the last NACIQI meeting to save ACICS, declared that NACIQI’s decision to reduce ACCSC’s recognition period from five years down to three years was wrong. He suggested that members “went rogue” by reducing the recognition period without identifying a *specific* regulatory issue.

For-profit college lawyer Jennifer Blum agreed.

A lobbyist with the for-profit college trade group CECU was tweeting along all three days, praising efforts by Blum and others to narrow the discussion — and attacking Shireman and others for seeking to broaden it.

Arthur Keiser sits on the board of CECU, and is a former chairman of that group. 

Shireman responded to fellow panelists’ assertion that NACIQI members cannot raise facts and concerns regarding accreditors and schools without in every case citing a specific regulation; he said, sensibly, that the senior Department official actually deciding the outcomes could review the NACIQI concerns and decide if they did implicate regulations. 

Keiser, though, continued to push back, warning the panelists against relying on “newspaper articles that may or may not be fact based” and saying that “politics” shouldn’t creep into the accreditor recognition process — echoing a persistent for-profit college industry talking point that any attempts to protect students and taxpayers against waste, fraud, and abuse are somehow “political” or “ideological.”

Shireman responded, “Student debt, student outcomes are not politics. They are the real things that people deal with.” Avoiding these topics, he said, is contrary to what NACIQI should be doing.

Note that NACIQI didn’t vote to terminate ACCSC, as it did with ACICS. The penalty doesn’t have to be death if NACIQI, or the Department, points to bad-acting schools under a particular accreditor. The accreditor can instead be informed that the Department has concerns, that it needs answers, and that it expects the accreditor to investigate its own shortcomings, deal with the errant schools, and develop plans to do better.

If, instead, the Department says or does nothing in the face of public information about predatory or otherwise failing schools, it is signaling to accreditors that it doesn’t care, and, that, absent an ACICS-style calamity — and maybe even then, if a Trump or DeVos is in charge — there will be no consequences. 

Following the members’ discussion, Barmak Nassirian of VES returned and, after paying polite respects to the NACIQI members, the Department, and others involved,  offered some sharp and perceptive commentary, which deserves full recitation: 

  1. Accreditation has historically operated as an opaque insiders’ activity, which the public and policymakers have happily relied on because it seemed to work. That perception is rapidly changing as instances of waste, fraud, and abuse claim hundreds of thousands of victims, and as too many people–including many veterans and servicemembers–face the prospect of lifelong debt and poverty because they attended a postsecondary institution.
  2. Both the recognition process and accreditation itself have increasingly become self-referential bureaucratic exercises that focus almost entirely on a check-the-box approach to procedural paperwork compliance, with little regard for whether the accrediting bodies or the institutions they accredit effectively enforce their written standards or carry out their commitments in practice. “Meeting the statutory standards” in other words, has been effectively reduced to echoing the law in writing, not in actually implementing them.
  3. The Department, NACIQI, and accrediting bodies have adopted a “less-is-more” philosophy of not only failing to seek, but at times actively rejecting and refusing to consider, empirical information with direct bearing on the veracity of the applications and the credibility of the applicants that they review. To give an analogy, this would be tantamount to the FAA disregarding daily airplane crashes while focusing solely on compliance audits of airlines.
  4. This Committee’s recognition process, like accreditation itself, appears designed to extend the benefit of every doubt to applicants–particularly those seeking renewal of existing recognition–in the name of consistency and due process without much consideration for the potential (and often, probable) harm that such leniency could inflict on students down the line.
  5. To justify its minimalist approach to its advisory responsibilities, this Committee has willingly embraced a contrived and extraordinarily narrow, process-conservative view of its jurisdiction and authority, despite the fact that nothing in the law prevents it from a more substantive approach to outcomes associated with statutory standards.

Whether Nassirian’s powerful statement gave any of the NACIQI members pause, I do not know.  

A long-time for-profit college industry executive with expertise in accreditation echoed Nassirian’s points, and pessimism: “The accreditor world is about standards and program expansion, not outcomes – they are not ready for this accountability world…. It’s hard to budge the higher ed establishment.” 

7. NACIQI’s, and the Department’s, next moves

A key question for upcoming NACIQI meetings is whether the Biden administration, given its stated concerns about accountability, will encourage Department staff to incorporate more concerns about waste, fraud, and abuse, and school integrity into its reviews of accreditors.

Among the accreditors up for review next year is the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, which I flagged in its last visit to NACIQI in 2016 for its continued approval of for-profit Grantham University. Grantham was the sole school being sold to military students through a deceptive website at the URL army.com. Since then, the Federal Trade Commission shut down the Army.com scam. So now Grantham peddles itself, among other places, on a deceptive site called military-colleges.com. Does the Department of Education staff want to ratify DEAC’s continued approval of Grantham?

Also up for review next year is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges (SACS), accreditor of a wide range of public and private institutions, including many fine schools. SACS also accredits Arthur Keiser’s Keiser University and Everglades University, plus another school, St. Andrews University, over which Keiser has obtained significant influence, as we have previously reported.

The Department set a tight 30-day deadline, August 15, for public comments in advance of the meeting that will consider SACS, so I submitted mine today. My submission focuses on SACS’s apparent failure to reign in abuses and flouting of accreditor rules at the three Keiser-associated schools. We’ll have to see if these concerns mean anything to the Department staff — and to NACIQI when it reconvenes.