October 28, 2021

Education Dept. Delays Renewal of For-Profit College Accreditor

Education Dept. Delays Renewal of For-Profit College Accreditor

The U.S. Department of Education announced this morning that it is delaying a decision on renewing approval of the Accrediting Commission on Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC), one of the outside accrediting bodies charged with evaluating the educational quality of colleges. Department recognition is crucial for accreditors, because without it, schools accredited by an agency cannot participate in the federal student aid program. 

In a statement, the Department said that the senior department official (SDO) designated to review this matter notified ACCSC (letter here) “that a decision on its recognition was deferred pending the submission of further information about the agency’s monitoring, evaluation, and actions related to high-risk institutions, including the Center for Excellence in Higher Education (CEHE), which closed following the staff and NACIQI review of the agency.” The senior official who acted is Deputy Under Secretary Jordan Matsudaira. 

In late July, the Department’s outside advisory committee on educational quality, NACIQI, met to consider the recommendations of Department staff regarding ACCSC and other accreditors up for renewal. The Department’s accreditation unit had recommended that ACCSC get the maximum five-year renewal. But some members of NACIQI, who include a range of education experts and college officials, pointed to ACCSC’s many years of accrediting schools with awful records of predatory practices and poor student outcomes. The accreditation unit’s bland write-up of ACCSC did not point to such problems at all.

A particular focus for NACIQI members was the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, a scam operation that has faced repeated law enforcement actions for deceiving students, and also faced controversy for its phony conversion from for-profit to non-profit status. ACCSC ignored or tolerated years of abuses at CEHE schools, including Independence University, CollegeAmerica, and Stevens-Henager College, before finally ending accreditation this spring, a decision that came only after predatory college fans Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos were replaced by a Biden administration that had declared a commitment to protect students and taxpayers from scam schools.

Following ACCSC’s decision to terminate CEHE, the Department of Education tightened controls on federal aid, and CEHE shut down all its schools. (CEHE lost an internal appeal of the ACCSC decision and is now trying to get it overturned through arbitration.)

Another ACCSC-accredited school is Southeastern College, a for-profit with relatively poor student outcomes. Southeastern’s owner, Arthur Keiser, is somehow the chair of NACIQI, having been appointed to the body by the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives and picked as chair by the members during the Trump administration. Keiser had to recuse from the formal NACIQI debate on ACCSC, but returned after the discussion and immediately blasted committee members for probing the conduct of accreditors and schools too hard.

A divided NACIQI panel settled on a compromise measure supporting renewal of ACCSC for three years.

Advocates for students (including me) subsequently called on the Department to approve a term of one to three years. (Matsudaira’s letter to ACCSC today says in a footnote that our letter was procedurally out of order and was not considered.)

By regulation, as Matsudaira’s letter notes, the Department’s recognition of ACCSC is automatically extended until he reaches a final decision. 

The Department also announced this morning that the SDO notified the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM) and Council on Occupational Education (COE) that they had a year to come into compliance with specific requirements before gaining renewal. At the NACIQI meeting, panelists presented evidence of bad behavior at schools accredited by those bodies as well. 

Today’s action on ACCSC is another signal that the administration under Biden and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona may be ready to get tough on predatory schools and the accreditors that enable them. There’s a long way to go to fight these battles against bad acting colleges, and their lawyers, lobbyists, and paid-off politicians, but the announcement is good news for students and taxpayers. 

This author filed a comment with the Department in August, asking that, in considering the upcoming renewal application of another accreditor, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges (SACS), it take into account SACS’s failure to address a decade of abuses at Keiser University and other SACS-accredited schools tied to Arthur Keiser.