May 23, 2023

With ACICS Closing Soon, What’s Going On With Its Remaining Schools?

With ACICS Closing Soon, What's Going On With Its Remaining Schools?

Last August, the U.S. Department of Education terminated the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) as a recognized accrediting agency, in the wake of powerful evidence that ACICS had allowed a number of schools under its watch to engage in deceptive and predatory practices without facing serious consequences.

The Department’s action reprised a 2016 decision by the Obama administration that had been subsequently reversed by Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos. By the time the Biden administration had in turn reversed DeVos, many ACICS accredited schools had closed or found new accreditors. ACICS, which had appealed the 2016 decision, this time said it would forego appeals and shut down accreditation operations by March 2024.

For the schools still accredited by ACICS last fall — the Department counted 27 schools, while ACICS said there were 44 campuses in total — most of them for-profits, the Department’s decision meant they had to find a new accreditor or else lose access to federal student grants and loans. The Department notified all those schools that they could continue to receive that federal aid for up to eighteen months as they looked for a new accreditor, but they had to sign new agreements with the Department that included a number of conditions.

One condition, as described by the Department, was: “Institutions will also be prohibited from enrolling new students who cannot complete their program by the end of the 18-month provisional period until and unless the institution is accredited by another nationally recognized accrediting agency.”

It’s now late May 2023, and, under the conditions imposed by the Department on ACICS-accredited schools, those schools are barred from enrolling new students unless those students can complete their programs by February 2024.

But some of the remaining ACICS-accredited schools appear to still be offering students the opportunity to enroll in programs that seem highly unlikely to be completed nine months from now.

For example, the University of North America, based in Fairfax, Virginia, shows on its website under “ACCREDITATION & CERTIFICATION” the ACICS symbol. The school also indicates on its website that students can apply today for bachelors degree programs in business administration and information technology, as well as associates degree, masters degree, and shorter-term programs. Bachelors degree programs at many schools take four years, and very few are started and completed in ten months. Neither are most associates or masters programs, which normally take two years.

Presenting myself as a prospective student, I contacted the University of North America and a number of other schools, asking questions about the programs they are still advertising.

These were all small schools, with few students, at a difficult stage in their business lives, faced with the challenge of losing their lifeblood — federal student aid dollars. In similar circumstances, recognizing that the end was near, many for-profit colleges, unfortunately, have seemed to enroll as many new students as they could, grabbing as many last taxpayer dollars as they could.

Some of these remaining ACICS school admissions representatives texted or called me multiple times after we first connected, but they didn’t relentlessly or aggressively pursue me. At the same time, however, their websites seemed to suggest their status was business as usual: Degree programs are open for enrollment, and their schools are fully accredited. And most of the admissions reps were not forthcoming about the near-term loss of accreditation and what that would mean for federal aid and the futures of their school and students. Nor did these reps tell me about their school’s legal obligation, if they still had one, not to enroll students who wouldn’t be able to graduate by February.

I called and spoke with an admissions representative at the University of North America, and he told me that “right now” the school has no bachelors degree program, but it does have associates and masters degree programs, with the next quarter beginning July 5.  Those programs, he said when I asked, would be completed in July 2025.  He also said, when I asked, that “right now” the school was accredited by ACICS.  He told me I could fill out online an application for the programs. UNA enrolls a large number of international students, who generally are not eligible for Department of Education grants and loans, and some U.S. veterans, who can get VA education aid under different rules, so it is possible the school feels it can proceed.

The Bergin College of Canine Studies, located in Penngrove, California, shows the ACICS symbol on its website homepage, and is still listed on the ACICS website as accredited by ACICS. The school’s website still offers people the opportunity to enroll in a Bachelor of Science in Canine Studies program.

A Bergin admissions representative returned my call, letting me know that in order to enroll in the canine studies BA program I would need to transfer in 60 credits of general education classes, about two years of courses, from another school, or 24 such credits to enroll in the canine studies AA program — because Bergin doesn’t offer those general studies classes, just the canine courses. She also said the school “had to move up” the starting date of the program to July 10 and that “you are eligible for federal aid” and “there is room” in the program.

Virginia-based Fairfax University of America is another school that still lists its accreditor as ACICS and is listed on the ACICS website. It claims to offer three bachelors and six masters degrees. I left them a voicemail, but they didn’t call me back.

Another Florida-based school, MIU City University Miami, still indicates on its website that is accredited by ACICS. It lists its available degrees as bachelors degrees in business administration and computer engineering, as well as two masters degrees. I also left them a voicemail, but they also didn’t return my call.

Could some of these schools have found new accreditors, or believe they are about to?  Are some eventually telling prospective students, or planning to tell students after they enroll, that financial aid isn’t available anymore? Leading students on, without disclosing a school’s upcoming potential loss of accreditation and end of financial aid, would seem to be deceptive conduct.

I contacted these schools again, this time as myself, to ask if there were reasons for them continuing to offer programs in apparent contradiction to the commitments they made to the Department of Education. Most didn’t respond to me.

One school, however, did offer an explanation.

Florida-based Southern Technical College (STC) says on its website that three of its campuses — in Fort Myers, Port Charlotte, and Tampa —  are accredited by ACICS to award bachelor degrees, associate degrees, and diplomas. The website indicates that four other campuses are accredited by a different organization, ACCSC. The website suggests that STC is not currently enrolling students in bachelors degrees programs, but there are nine associates degrees still listed. The STC website also indicates that student grants and loans from the Department of Education are available, without any distinction noted between ACICS and ACCSC accredited campuses.

I called the school, expressing interest in enrolling at the Tampa campus, one of  the locations that has been ACICS-accredited. A Southern Technical College admissions representative told me that new associates programs were starting on July 10, and that the program took two years to complete. She encouraged me to apply, and affirmed, when I asked, that the school is accredited.

When I followed up to ask for comment, Brett Weber, STC’s Vice President & Chief Operations Officer, confirmed in an email response that the Tampa. Fort Myers, and Port Charlotte campuses still have ACICS as their accreditor.  He said that STC had submitted to accreditors ACCSC and ABHES, as well as the Florida state oversight agency, CIE, “applications that realign accrediting for these campuses.” Weber continued, “This process is known at the Department of Education as a ‘realignment’ and is available when there is identical ownership of a College system such as Southern Technical College.” He said that there had been “successful site visits” by the accreditors to STC campuses, the realignment application for the Ft. Myers campus was on the agenda for the July meeting of CIE, and that STC was “working” with CIE on the statuses of Tampa and Port Charlotte.

Weber shared that prospective students must sign a form that explains to them that the school is currently accredited by ACICS, that accreditation will end in February when ACICS shuts down, and that, because the program in which the student is enrolling won’t be completed before February, it is not currently eligible for federal aid. STC is telling these students, as Weber explained it, “that they will not be held financially liable for any balances due to an inability to receive financial aid.”

According to Weber, STC is in regular contact with the U.S. Department of Education regarding its current status. He expressed optimism that the three STC campuses would gain new accreditation: “This process has been ongoing for almost the past 7 months and while we cannot predict the future, the trajectory, lack of material findings and overall College performance metrics lead to the conclusion that accrediting realignment is forthcoming.”

(An ACCSC memorandum from 2018 indicates that STC had applied to that accreditor at the time for approval of all seven campuses.  When I asked Weber why three of the seven remained accredited by ACICS, not ACCSC he replied, “the election of Southern Technical College (STC) to retain ACICS accreditation for 3 of its 7 campuses in 2018, and allow the remaining 4 campuses to switch to the ACCSC was a decision made by its former owners at that time. We were not privy to that decision making.”)

Another ACICS accredited school I looked at, California’s Beverly Hills Design Institute, continues to advertise bachelors degree programs, and has a form to apply for bachelors degree programs, on its website.

I reached a representative there, perhaps one of the school’s executives, who, refreshingly, told me essentially the truth about the school’s accreditation status, before transitioning to a questionable pitch.

He said that new quarters at the school started in July and October, but that only non-degree certificate programs were going forward, and that federal aid would not be available because the school is in “transition” due to the Department of Education having “killed” its accreditor, ACICS.  He said the school was seeking approval by another accreditor, again ACCSC.

When I asked why the Department went after ACICS, the man from the Beverly Hills Design Institute told me it was “all politics,” that the Democrats needed to distract the public from their shortcomings, so they blamed for-profit colleges. (Despite our efforts here at Republic Report, I honestly don’t see for-profit college issues topping the news headlines though.) He suggested enrolling in his school was a good idea because “at the end of the day students are not coming for credits, they are coming for the experience of working in the luxury industries,” making connections so they could develop their own businesses. The school, he said, was heavily connected to influential people and celebrities. 

Beverly Hills Design Institute also did not respond to a follow-up request for comment.

California Aeronautical University, in Bakersfield, says on its website that it offers masters, bachelors, associates, and certificates and that its accreditor is ACICS, and the school is also still listed on the ACICS site. But, when I called identifying myself as a prospective student, an admissions representative informed me that the school is now under accreditor ACCSC, and she pointed me to the current school catalogue, which confirms that information. When I asked if ACCSC was better than ACICS, she said it was a better match for the school.

ACICS also did not respond to my request for comment on these matters. The U.S. Department of Education acknowledged receiving my query but did not offer a response.