February 4, 2022

Groups Call on Education Department to Improve Oversight of Accreditors

Groups Call on Education Department to Improve Oversight of Accreditors

Fifteen organizations (and me) have sent a letter calling on the U.S. Department of Education to strengthen its reviews of accreditors, with a focus on accreditor oversight of schools with poor student outcomes and predatory practices.

Accreditors that the Department approves serve as gatekeepers for federal student aid: Students who enroll at schools approved by those Department-certified accreditors are eligible to receive federal grants and loans. But Department oversight of accreditors has often appeared minimal and in particular has ignored glaring failures by approved schools to help students succeed.

The process also has frequently concealed key information from the public. In the January 20 letter sent to Herman Bounds, director of the Department’s accreditation group, the organizations argue that the current process by which the Department evaluates accreditors “leaves the public with limited ability to understand and comment on accreditors currently under review.”  The groups also write that the process deprives even the members of the Department’s own outside accreditation review panel, NACIQI, “of the ability to fully evaluate whether accreditors up for review are doing enough to protect students from institutions that leave them worse off.” 

The letter highlights particularly egregious behavior by some schools subject to review by accreditors that are up for evaluation in the Department’s next round of accreditation oversight. 

For example, the letter points to failure by the accreditor Higher Learning Commission to adequately address a long record of predatory abuses by for-profit colleges operated by Perdoceo, a company that repeatedly has faced federal and state law enforcement actions over deceptive practices. Numerous Perdoceo staffers with whom I have spoken say the abuses have continued in recent years at the company’s American Intercontinental University and Colorado Technical University.

In addition, the groups’ letter raises concerns about how the accreditor WASC has addressed a long record of predatory abuses and law enforcement issues by Ashford University, now called University of Arizona Global Campus. WASC last year demanded that UAGC show evidence of improvements in academic quality at the school. 

Last October, the Department of Education announced it was delaying a decision on renewing approval of another accreditor, ACCSC, “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).” CEHE’s schools, including Independence University, had engaged in more than a decade of abuses. They shut down last year after a Colorado court, following a trial brought by the state’s attorney general, ruled in August 2020 that the company had violated state consumer protection laws. (That decision was partially reversed on appeal last August and still pending in court). Only after that court decision — eight months after — did ACCSC finally act to terminate the schools’ accreditation (an action that CEHE continues to appeal). 

Last August, I submitted a comment to the Department asking it, in evaluating the application for renewal of accreditor SACS, to consider the agency’s failure to address abuses and violations at Florida’s Keiser University. 

The groups signing the new letter to the Department include Center for American Progress, New America, Student Veterans of America, Education Trust, The Institute for College Access & Success, Third Way, UnidosUS, and Veterans Education Success.