May 7, 2024

Accreditors, Education Department Limit Public Access to Findings on Troubled Colleges

Accreditors, Education Department Limit Public Access to Findings on Troubled Colleges

Accrediting agencies — the private gatekeepers charged by the U.S. Department of Education with issuing the approvals that make colleges eligible for student financial aid — sometimes send letters to schools describing violations of rules and establishing penalties. These letters, when posted online, can help the public, including students, understand devel0pments and misconduct at schools. But recent actions involving the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC), a major accreditor of for-profit colleges, suggest things may be moving in a bad direction — away from transparency and disclosure and toward greater concealment of abuses. 

In the past few years, letters from ACCSC to schools have allowed the public and students to learn about critical issues regarding schools. These include letters: to now-closed Independence University explaining ACCSC’s withdrawal of accreditation after years of school abuses; to International Education Corporation (IEC), placing on “warning” status remaining schools of a company whose Florida Career College was shuttered after the Department of Education moved to withdraw federal aid because of blatant violations; and to Atlantis University, which voluntarily closed a troubled branch school but still seemed to have its own serious violations meriting warning status.

However, ACCSC and other accreditors sometimes redact those letters, often heavily, and accreditors often remove those letters entirely from their public websites once the issues have been resolved. Both developments have occurred with ACCSC’s October 2023 letter to Atlantis, for example – the broken link is here. (But we saved a copy.)

More recently — after Republic Report wrote about the IEC and Atlantis letters — it appears that ACCSC is posting online summaries of at least some of its letters to institutions instead of the letters themselves – meaning even less transparency for the public.

To make matters worse, the Department of Education normally does not post online such letters from accreditors to institutions, if it obtains them at all. 

A recent interaction I had with the Department’s Freedom of Information Act office highlighted this issue.

ACCSC’s Rules of Process and Procedure, Standards of Accreditation, Section X (C)(2), says:, 

The Commission, at the same time it notifies the school, will provide notice and the reasons why a school is placed on Probation or Warning to the U.S. Department of Education, the appropriate state licensing agency, and other accrediting agencies.

However, when I sought to obtain under FOIA an unredacted version of the ACCSC letter to Atlantis, which placed the school on ACCSC’s warning status, the response from the Department informed me that there were no responsive records, and included this explanation:

Please note, the ACCSC has four levels of corrective actions that are lesser than a probation. Those include: stipulations, heightened monitoring, reporting, and warning. The agency is not required to provide the Department with a decision letter on any of these statuses so long as they are not treated as the equivalent of a probation. 

These responses from ACCSC and the Department may not be completely inconsistent – perhaps, in the case of a warning status, ACCSC is providing reasons without providing actual letters to the institutions. But, at least, these matters require clarification. The idea that ACCSC would send a significant letter to an institution regarding possible violations, and even post it online for the public, as in the case with Atlantis, but, according to the Department, not provide it to the Department, is concerning.

The apparent ACCSC shift from posting the actual letters to posting summaries is also concerning, as is the failure of the Department to post online the letters it does receive. (The Department’s DAPIP website might be able to accurately tell you which accreditor is in charge of a given school, but it is often missing key information.)

ACCSC’s executive director, Michale McComis, has not responded to a request to discuss these matters, and neither has the press office at the Department of Education. 

This issue is one more aspect of the concern by advocates for students that the Department is not providing sufficient transparency regarding institutions of higher education.  We have been raising these issues with the Department for years, including a letter we sent Secretary Cardona in March 2021.