March 4, 2021

It’s Time for the Education Department to Dismiss Accreditor ACICS

It's Time for the Education Department to Dismiss Accreditor ACICS

Today the Department of Education’s advisory committee on higher education, NACIQI, is considering for the second time in five years whether the Department should eliminate the accrediting body ACICS as a gatekeeper for colleges’ access to federal student grants and loans.

It was a dramatic development in 2016 when the same committee — consisting of outside higher education experts, college owners, lawyers, and others — voted overwhelmingly to ratify the Department staff’s recommendation that ACICS, which had been asleep at the switch as multiple colleges under its authority engaged in egregious predatory abuses against students, should be cut loose.

The Obama education department subsequently ratified that decision, but ACICS appealed, and after Donald Trump’s election, Betsy DeVos and her top higher education aide Diane Auer Jones — who almost never met a predatory college they didn’t like — restored ACICS pending further review. Media reports, state agency actions, and the Department staff’s own efforts have since revealed that ACICS has still been allowing improper college conduct on its watch. Now the matter is back before NACIQI, again with a staff recommendation that ACICS be terminated.

Members of the public are allowed to comment, not in a crowded hotel conference room as in the past, but, as with last July’s meeting, weirdly plugged in over the phone as disembodied voices that address NACIQI members who are on video.

Here, roughly, is what I just told NACIQI:

Members of NACIQI — 

There remains way too much bias in the Department of Education system in favor of protecting institutions and not enough effort to protect students and taxpayers.

The question should not be: does ACICS deserve yet one more chance? Instead it should be: are students and taxpayers best served by continuing to recognize ACICS, or by ending recognition? 

ACICS has vouched for the quality and integrity of some of the worst colleges and universities in the country — allowing federal student aid to flow to schools that have been deceiving and abusing students, leaving them buried in debt, and crushing their dreams. 

After the Department, with NACIQI’s endorsement, de-recognized ACICS, and then re-recognized it, ACICS has continued to be asleep at the switch and out of compliance. I joined a letter to the Department in November detailing these problems. 

If the Department withdraws recognition, it would be a hardship for the employees of ACICS. It would be a hardship for the remaining 50 or so ACICS-accredited schools, their owners and investors, their employees and teachers, and yes their students. The schools would have to find new accreditors or shut down. It would be a hardship. 

But there will be much more hardship if the Department again protects ACICS.

If every institution in the Department’s orbit is treated as too big to fail, or just protected because that’s what the Department does in the end, then there is no deterrence for anyone against bad behavior, predatory behavior, dishonest behavior, negligent and incompetent behavior. Then there is little protection for students and taxpayers and far less incentive for schools and accreditors to behave ethically and responsibly and effectively. Because everyone will stay in business no matter how badly they perform or behave. 

But students — veterans, single mothers, immigrants, first in their family to attend college, people who just want a chance — pay the price for that brand of collegiality in the higher education world. So do conscientious employees at predatory schools — people who call me every week in anguish over blatant abuses. 

You have the power to send the message that such business as usual does not serve students and taxpayers, and does not serve higher education. From every standpoint — efficiency, fairness, justice, morality — the right decision is to drop ACICS as a recognized accreditor once and for all.

UPDATE 03-05-21: NACIQI voted 11-1 to recommend terminating ACICS. The only no vote was from Robert Mayes, Jr., the CEO of two for-profit colleges, and even he said it was a close call. Another for-profit school owner on the panel, Arthur Keiser, decided as chairman of the group not to vote except to break a tie; he voted once, in favor of ACICS, on the only charge against the accreditor that NACIQI rejected.

During her statement to NACIQI, ACICS head Michelle Edwards called the meeting’s public commenters “the same group of activists that have been attacking career education for more than a decade… spinning a false or exaggerated narrative” and offering “misinformed allegations.” She also criticized the performance of other accreditors.

The decision on ACICS now goes to the Department of Education’s designated senior official. If ACICS loses there, it can appeal to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and then to the courts.