October 9, 2023

ACCSC Puts Atlantis University On Warning, Citing Compliance Issues

ACCSC Puts Atlantis University On Warning, Citing Compliance Issues

The accrediting agency ACCSC has placed Miami for-profit Atlantis University on warning status, a decision that bars the school from starting new academic programs or opening new locations pending a further review that could place the school in even bigger trouble.

The accreditor’s action came just weeks after Atlantis withdrew its application with ACCSC to renew the accreditation of the school’s branch campus, called Florida Palms University, and, soon after, shut down Florida Palms. Atlantis’s decision to withdraw that accreditation application came less than a month after Republic Report exposed that Atlantis and Florida Palms appeared to be in violation of ACCSC standards and U.S. Department of Education regulations governing branch campuses. 

In an October 5 letter, the public version of which is heavily redacted, ACCSC executive director Michale McComis informs Atlantis University executive director Carol Palacios that the accrediting commission voted at its August meeting to put Atlantis on warning status. “Despite the voluntary withdrawal of accreditation and the subsequent closure of Florida Palms University,” McComis writes, “Atlantis University bears the responsibility for Florida Palms University’s compliance with accrediting standards and for the information submitted to the Commission in the OER [on-site evaluation report] response.”

According to McComis’s letter, Florida Palms. which obtained its initial ACCSC approval effective February 2021, moved in August 2022 into the same building that housed Atlantis. “The school characterized the move as temporary due to the fact that the current premises were going to be demolished,” McComis writes.

ACCSC and Department of Education rules prohibit main and branch campuses from being located in the same place. McComis asserts in his letter that ACCSC approved this co-location “with the explicit understanding that the school intended to move to a different, permanent location within 9 to 12 months.”

On July 20, 2023, almost a full year after Florida Palms relocated, we reported that Atlantis and Florida Palms were operating at the same Miami location, and noted that situation appeared to violate ACCSC rules. At the time, McComis told me via email that ACCSC was “aware that Florida Palms University is currently sharing space in the same building occupied by its main campus, Atlantis University, for the time being.”  

Our July article also noted that ACCSC standards and Department regulations further require that a branch campus “have its own faculty and administrative or supervisory organization.” But LinkedIn listed 177 employees at Atlantis University and appeared to list zero employees at Florida Palms University. It looked as if Atlantis might be trying to use an improper backdoor to launch a new school or brand without having to wait years for approval to get federal financial aid from the Department of Education and approval to enroll international students under the Homeland Security department’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP).

The apparent violations were especially striking because Carol Palacios, the head of Atlantis University, was, from May 2022 until recently, the chair of ACCSC. She is still an ACCSC commission member and an “ACCSC Certified Accreditation Professional.”

For our July article we spoke with a long-time industry executive who asked whether ACCSC might be tolerating Atlantis’s co-location of its main campus and its branch, and the apparent staff and program overlap, in part because Atlantis’s leader was chair of the commission.

But any such broad tolerance for violations at the schools seemed to end by this summer, judging from the McComis letter. The letter discloses that officials from ACCSC conducted a visit to Florida Palms in April in connection with the branch’s application for renewed accreditation.  The subsequent report on that visit, filed in June, was apparently troubling. According to McComis’s letter, “it appears that the school’s managers were ill-prepared for the on-site evaluation. The school was unable to produce documentation and, in some cases, produced multiple versions of documents, which the on-site evaluation team found did not provide a definitive showing of compliance with accrediting standards in several areas.”

“The questions raised in the OER,” McComis continues, “include the co-location of Florida Palms University with the Atlantis University, the adequacy of the management team, faculty qualifications, tuition policies, and the accuracy of the catalog and advertising in representing the school’s approved programs, admissions process, transfer of credit policies, educational delivery method, and name of the school.” 

At the August 2023 ACCSC meeting, the letter continues, the ACCSC commissioners found that Florida Palms’ response to the visit findings “appears to contain several discrepancies and did not fully demonstrate compliance with certain accrediting standards over the term of Florida Palms University’s operation.” In particular, the Commission found that Florida Palms “did not satisfactorily address questions regarding management, faculty qualifications, recordkeeping, representation of the school through catalog and advertising, admissions procedures, leaves of absence, accepting transfer credit, cessation of program approval, and professional development.” 

“The nature and content of the response” from Florida Palms, McComis writes, “created an impression that the branch was not adequately managed and called into question the accuracy of the records provided.” 

We don’t, however, know the full extent of ACCSC’s concerns about Atlantis and Florida Palms, because five and a half pages of McComis’s nine-page letter are almost entirely blacked out. It’s concerning that these details have not been shared with the public. Presumably ACCSC sent the U.S. Department of Education and the Florida oversight agency, the Commission on Independent Education, an unredacted version of the letter. If not, they should demand it.

The sharply negative reaction by the ACCSC visitors to Florida Palms University in April 2023 stands in remarkable contrast to the outcome of ACCSC’s last review of Atlantis University — located in the very same building and with many of the same personnel — which resulted in a five-year renewal of Atlantis’s accreditation in December 2022. 

“Something is wrong here,” said the long-time industry executive, with whom we spoke again for this article. “The 2023 ACCSC team comes into the same building, just a few months later, and it goes so horribly bad that there are 57 items blacked out in the letter? What happened?” 

Some concerns that we previously noted include Atlantis and Florida Palms’s confusing disclosures to students regarding the costs of attendance, and Atlantis’s policy of charging a $1,000 fee to international students who wish to transfer or withdraw from the school — a fee that did not seem to appear in the Atlantis catalogue at the time we wrote our July article. Mention of the $1000 fee has since been added to the catalogue. 

McComis’s letter says that Florida Palms University “notified ACCSC of the school’s intent to voluntarily withdraw from ACCSC accreditation” on August 14, effective that day. That notification came at the start of the week that ACCSC was set to meet and decide Florida Palms’ status at its August meeting. On September 8, after ACCSC sought more information and Atlantis provided a response, Atlantis told the accreditor that it was closing Florida Palms. It therefore appears that between August 14 and September 8, Florida Palms was operating, but not accredited.

Atlantis University offers programs in business, computer science, health, engineering, education, and English language instruction. It also emphasizes its “ambitious” athletics program, which aims “Within the next 3 years… to become a full-blown collegiate athletics department with a total of 20 sports affiliated to the USCAA or NCCAA.” 

By its letter, ACCSC is requiring Atlantis to inform all current and prospective students of its warning status and the reasons for it. It also has directed Atlantis to respond to its concerns by early January and has scheduled a follow-up review of the school at ACCSC’s February 2024 meeting.

ACCSC’s letter to Palacios also says the accreditor “is interested in the final disposition of the Florida Palms University students.”

ACCSC recently got through a struggle regarding review by its own overseer, the U.S. Department of Education. The Department delayed for almost two years, until May 25, 2023, its final decision on the latest renewal of ACCSC as a recognized accreditor, empowered to serve as a gatekeeper for federal student aid. The delay came after the Department’s panel of outside experts, NACIQI, recommended in July 2021 that ACCSC be renewed for three years, rather than the maximum five-year term that the Department accreditation staff had recommended. NACIQI acted after some of its members pointed out that ACCSC had for many years failed to address serious abuses at some of the schools the accreditor oversaw. The Department’s decision extensively criticized ACCSC and followed the NACIQI recommendation to renew ACCSC for three years instead of five. But the practical effect of the two-year delay in deciding is that ACCSC essentially received a five year renewal, through 2026.

It’s encouraging that this year, despite that partial reprieve, ACCSC has gotten serious about problems at Atlantis and Florida Palms (and apparently was doing so before it got nagged by this little website), and that it has not drawn an artificial line between the apparent abuses regarding Florida Palms and the responsibility of the parent entity, Atlantis. Similarly, this year the Department of Education moved to cut off federal aid to predatory Florida Career College (FCC), which is overseen by a different accreditor, and then ACCSC, which accredits another set of schools operated by FCC’s owner, probed and placed on system-wide warning status that owner, International Education Corporation.

More diligence along these lines, effected sooner, by accreditors like ACCSC, and also by the Department of Education and its accreditation unit, and maybe the college accrediting system could start working to protect students and taxpayers. 

UPDATE 10-19-23:

Atlantis University has today posted on its homepage a notice of its ACCSC warning status. An industry observer who has been closely watching the Atlantis website says the warning appeared on the homepage only today, even though ACCSC directed Atlantis to post the warning in a letter dated October 5.  The initial version of the homepage notice posted today included the notation “10/6/23.” A version posted later today deleted that apparent effort to backdate the announcement. The new version adds some language not included in the version posted earlier today, including, “We want to assure you that Atlantis University takes ACCSC’s concerns very seriously…. We recognize the significance of these matters and their impact on our students and the overall quality of our institution. Please rest assured that we are putting forth ever effort to comprehensively and effectively address these concerns.” 

UPDATE 02-14-24: 

ACCSC has removed Atlantis from its posted list of schools currently on warning status, and Atlantis has removed from its own webpage any reference to an ACCSC warning.