March 2, 2023

Highlights and Lowlights at the Education Department NACIQI Meeting


Highlights and Lowlights at the Education Department NACIQI Meeting

This week the U.S. Department of Education held its semi-annual meeting of NACIQI, the Department’s outside advisory committee of higher education experts charged with reviewing the performance of the private accrediting agencies that oversee quality at colleges and universities. Due to other commitments, I wasn’t able to observe the entire meeting, but here is some of what occurred:

February 28

After public commenters (including me) spoke at today’s NACIQI meeting regarding accreditor Higher Learning Commission (HLC) and its failure to curb abuses at for-profit colleges including the University of Phoenix and the schools owned by Perdoceo Education Corp., HLC president Barbara Gellman-Danley said in response that she heard what I and others were saying about schools, and she understood.  But, she said, accreditors are only part of the oversight triad (in addition to the federal and state governments) and do not bear all the responsibility.  The Department of Education accreditation staffer who reviewed HLC also responded, saying she did look into some of the same issues I raised today and, it appears, ultimately determined there were no violations of applicable standards and regulations. NACIQI members then considered but rejected a proposal to require a report from HLC on several issues. Instead, they voted to accept the staff recommendation, renewing recognition for the maximum five years and requiring a report on just one narrow issue.

A fundamental problem with the accreditation review system is that the Department tends to reject complaints from outside parties unless they are crafted with detailed references to Department regulations and accrediting agency standards (which I tried to do in 2021 with respect to the accreditor Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS)).  Unfortunately the process is stacked against commenters — written comments are due nearly a year in advance, and oral comments are limited to three minutes, and both approaches are hampered by the Department’s refusal to make public key documents, on a timely basis or at all.

The designated senior department official who will review the staff and NACIQI recommendations and make the agency’s decisions on accrediting agencies (subject to an appeal to the Secretary of Education) can still make their own judgments about whether regulations and standards were violated. I hope that official will take a harder look at HLC’s years of failure to curb abuses at Phoenix, Perdoceo, and other schools under its watch.

When asked by Shireman about the proposed deal for a non-profit associated with the University of Arkansas to acquire the University of Phoenix, Gellman-Danley said HLC would not be “rushed” in reviewing it and was “looking very closely” at the transaction.

At the start of the meeting, NACIQI members elected a new chair, Claude Presnell (who had been the vice chair), and a new vice chair, Zakiya Smith Ellis (who joined NACIQI last year). The previous chair, still a NACIQI member, school operator Arthur Keiser, called on fellow panelist Robert Shireman to recuse from review of the first accreditor on the agenda, seeming to argue that because Shireman was seeking more documents from the Department as a basis for proceeding to review accreditors, he had predetermined how he would vote on staff recommendations. Smith Ellis reacted by asking Shireman if he had already determined how he would vote on any accreditor, and Shireman said he had not.  Keiser’s suggestion was not supported by other members. (Shireman has long criticized abuses at Keiser’s schools.)

Later, a public commenter, Dr. Robert McClure, President and CEO of the Florida-based James Madison Institute, which describes itself as committed to “free markets, limited government, and economic liberty,” (and whose upcoming Naples, Florida, dinner speaker is Tucker Carlson), lavishly praised Keiser, and then said politics had no place in higher education discussions. It was unclear what politics McClure was referencing.

March 1

At NACIQI’s review of accreditor WASC today, WASC officials defended the agency’s handling of Ashford University / UAGC. Following discussion, NACIQI members voted unanimously to endorse the Department staff recommendation, which included the finding that WASC “is not in compliance” with Department regulations as to its oversight of UAGC’s recruiting and admissions practices.

During NACIQI’s consideration of accreditor Middle States Commission on Higher Education, there was a surprise (not on the original agenda) public comment from Alex Shchegol, the embattled owner of ASA College, which shut down last week after Middle States withdrew accreditation. Shchegol was walking through the history of his school before the chair cut him off when the permitted three minutes had expired.

March 2

At today’s final session of the NACIQI meeting, there was a general policy discussion, and two panelists – college operator Arthur Keiser and Jennifer Blum, a long-time for-profit college industry lawyer (previously in-house counsel at Laureate Education) – revived a debate from a previous meeting by pushing back on the idea that the Department and NACIQI should focus on troubled schools in evaluating accreditors. Both seemed to set up versions of a straw man, suggesting  that advocates for students want the Department to promptly terminate any accreditor based on unverified reports about misconduct at a single school under the accreditor’s authority.

Keiser warned against judging an accreditor for one school based on information provided in third party complaints or media reports “that may or may not be accurate.” 

Blum stressed that she was not saying NACIQI should not consider information about troubling schools, but said basing a vote regarding an accreditor on the behavior of one school is “problematic,” because the panel should be comparing the performance of the accreditor across the numerous schools it oversees. Blum also noted that the Department had other tools to address troubled schools besides the accreditor oversight process.

But it makes a joke of accreditation; harms the reputation of accreditors, schools, and the Department; and hurts taxpayers, when schools engaged in blatant deceptive practices and other misconduct have accredited status. It also harms the many students who enroll in predatory schools based on the fact that a school is accredited and has, as a result, federal recognition and access to student grants and loans.

NACIQI member Zakiya Smith Ellis, a former New Jersey state secretary of higher education, said that if a college serves 30,000 students and its misconduct is “front page news,” then it is “not a distraction” for NACIQI to address the matter. Indeed, she said, members of the public would question NACIQI if it ignored such controversies.

By holding an accreditor accountable for not holding a school accountable for glaring predatory behavior, the Department of Education sends a critical message to accreditors and schools alike: Blatant abuses of students and taxpayer dollars won’t be tolerated. The days of the Department and accreditors checking boxes in a world separated from hard reality must end.

During NACIQI’s review at a 2021 meeting of accreditor ACCSC, Blum pushed back against an effort to limit the Department’s renewal of ACCSC from the maximum five years to a shorter period. She said that the Department accreditation unit “found … a pretty clean record” for ACCSC. Which was true, but only because that unit didn’t seem to look at readily available front page news. 

At today’s meeting, Keiser bemoaned NACIQI’s decision to recommend a shorter three-year renewal for ACCSC, claiming that NACIQI “made a judgment based on a complaint about one school.” He added, “I have a real problem with that.” Keiser, at the time the chair of NACIQI, recused himself from the 2021 discussion of ACCSC, because it is the accreditor of a for-profit school he owns, Southeastern College, but he returned to chastise his fellow panelists for their handling of the matter. (For that action, Keiser received criticism from U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).) 

The troubled school chain that was a focus of the discussion on ACCSC was the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, operator of schools including Independence University.  But the case against CEHE was much more than “a complaint” as Keiser called it – there was, among other compelling evidence of abuses over a decade, a judgment from a state trial court, after a trial of a lawsuit filed by a Republican state attorney general, that the company and its top executives had deceived students. (Both sides are now appealing aspects of the case to the Colorado Supreme Court.)  

Moreover, there was substantial evidence that ACCSC had engaged in lax oversight at other troubling schools, including 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. 

Keiser also seemed to criticize the action of NACIQI on Wednesday to ratify the Department’s decision to find accreditor WASC out of compliance over its handling of recruiting practices at Ashford University / UAGC. He cited the fact that WASC had undertaken 14 visits at the school and did not find problems — for Keiser, apparently, proof that the school was acting properly, rather than that the accreditor was poorly equipped to find problems. As with CEHE, a state judge, after a trial brought by a state attorney general (in this case California), found that Ashford and its parent company Zovio had engaged in consumer protection violations that injured students. (Ashford has filed an appeal.) And also as with CEHE, there is much other evidence of long-running deceptive practices, in Ashford’s case going back at least to a 2011 Senate hearing at which, after reviewing the record, committee chair Tom Harkin called Ashford “an absolute scam.” 

Yet the conclusion that Keiser took away from WASC’s decade of looking the other way on Ashford was “we have to be careful to not second guess these people on specific individual actions.” 

Then Keiser referenced the accreditor review that seems nearest to his heart. “I was obviously attacked at the last meeting,” he said, the one at which NACIQI reviewed SACS, accreditor of Keiser University, and I and others discussed SACS’s failure to address Keiser’s troubling abuse of non-profit status. Following that meeting, the Department determined that SACS was out of compliance with numerous federal regulations and directed it to provide more information regarding its oversight of Keiser University. (Numerous senior leaders in Congress also have called on the Department to investigate Keiser.)

Keiser then said, “It becomes a political issue – we need to stay away from that.” That remark seemed to echo a public comment at the meeting on Wednesday from conservative think tank head Robert McClure, who, during the discussion of an unrelated accreditor, suddenly praised Arthur Keiser and said politics had no place in higher education discussions. 

The claim that efforts to hold colleges accountable for ripping off students and taxpayers are somehow “political” has also been a common refrain by others in the for-profit college industry, including the lobbying group CECU, where the wealthy Arthur Keiser has long been a dominant figure.

Keiser, who runs non-profit Everglades University in addition to Keiser University and Southeastern College, also argued at today’s meeting that Department officials were overdoing it in urging NACIQI members to recuse where they might have an interest in the outcome of a vote on an accreditor.  He said his schools have 29 accreditors overseeing them, and that while he didn’t mind leaving the room and doing other work while NACIQI judged those agencies, he would “prefer to stay in.”