The Department of Education De-Accredits an Accreditor

The final year of the U.S. Department of Education in the Obama administration is noteworthy for all its carnage. In September, the large ITT Tech chain of schools, which had operated in 38 states, was forced to close when Department officials shut off its access to federal student aid. That decision, which I wrote about here, disrupted the education of more than 40,000 students and cost 8,000 employees their jobs.

Almost inevitably, the Department then went after the organization that had put its stamp of approval on ITT Tech, the 104-year-old Accrediting Council of Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS). Since ITT had been found bad, naturally the agency that had pronounced ITT good enough to receive federal student aid money must also be bad.

On September 22, the Education Department declared that ACICS was no longer recognized as an accrediting agency, meaning that federal funds could not go to the schools it had accredited. Because there is no other reason than that for them to want ACICS to puts its stamp of approval on them (and pay the associated fees), the Department’s decision is a death sentence for ACICS.

ACICS requested a review of that decision, but was denied in a letter dated December 12 by Secretary of Education John King. In reply to pleas by ACICS that it was on track to meet the various standards where Department officials had found it deficient and should be given more time, King wrote, “The failure by ACICS to efficiently monitor and enforce the required standards, and its lack of progress toward efficiently doing so, strongly indicates that ACICS cannot meet its ambitious promises to come into compliance with 12 months.”

Secretary King’s decision probably closes the matter. ACICS has, however, filed for a temporary restraining order in federal district court; if granted, it would buy the agency some time and perhaps a new, lifesaving analysis of its situation under the Trump administration’s Education Department.

What does the demise of ACICS mean?

For one thing, it leaves the numerous schools it had accredited without accreditation. The number of students enrolled in those schools is over 580,000. They’re studying such fields as medical assistance, business management, nursing, criminal justice, and culinary arts.

In its last appeal, ACICS attempted to use those students as human shields, arguing that their educations would be disrupted if the Department revoked its accrediting power. King dismissed that claim, saying that it was legally irrelevant and that ACICS didn’t have standing to raise possible damage to student welfare as a ground for a stay of execution.

In any case, the Department grants schools 18 months to find a new, recognized accrediting agency if theirs closes. So none will necessarily close and no students are certain to face disruption in their education. But other accreditors might look askance at some schools that had found a haven under ACICS.

For example, ACICS accredited the programs at Academy College in Bloomington, Minnesota, a 75-year-old school that offers training in aviation, business, accounting, and computer technology.

The school’s degrees and certificates are not inexpensive (an associate degree in accounting is expected to take 27 months to complete at a cost of over $40,000 including tuition, books, and supplies), but if prospective students want to find out how likely they are to finish on time and find a job after graduation, the site informs them, respectively, that since fewer than 10 students completed the program in 2014-15, the number who completed on time “has been withheld to preserve the confidentiality of the students” and that the job placement rate cannot be provided “due to privacy concerns.”

Academy College’s programs might or might not be worth what they cost and warrant accreditation, but if it can’t give students better information about their job prospects than that, other accreditors might decide that the fees they would earn by approving it are not worth the risk if the Department continues its crusade against dubious schools and their accreditors.

Thus, some ACICS schools may be pulled down in its undertow.

While Secretary King’s letter sets forth the failures of ACICS to comply with the federal regulatory criteria, it mentions in passing the fact that until recently ACICS was a recognized accreditor. In 2011, the group that evaluates accreditors, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), recommended that the Department continue its recognition of ACICS. In 2013, NACIQI accepted its compliance report and recognition was extended.

So, how did ACICS go from good enough to merit continued recognition in 2013 to so far out of compliance that the Department sees no possible way for it to get back into compliance in a year? Did ACICS change?

No. What changed is that in the last two years, the Department has been on a mission to hunt down for-profit colleges, and now their accreditors. That is why ACICS was put under far more intense scrutiny than before and found wanting. Making an example of it, in the view of many in the higher education community, will help to clean up the dirty, disreputable for-profit corner.

Exemplifying that view, Betsy Mayotte, director of consumer outreach at the Center for Consumer Advocacy, said of Secretary King’s decision, “At a time when we are seeing many thousands of students incurring substantial financial damage as a result of their desire to achieve a higher education, it is crucial to restore integrity to the accreditation process. Too often, accrediting agencies have been the rubber stamp for federal aid at predatory higher education institutions.”

But it’s hard to see how killing ACICS will have much beneficial impact. That’s because the poor student outcomes at many of the ACICS schools can’t be fixed from the top, by even the strictest accreditor oversight. Colleges and trade schools like those that had been accredited by ACICS can’t be micromanaged into producing good results by distant organizations doing perfunctory campus visits every ten years.

The accreditation system itself is a very weak basis for determining which schools should be eligible for Pell Grants and federal loan money. Manhattan Institute scholar Preston Cooper nailed that point in his article “College Accreditors Get An F.” He showed that almost all of the recognized accreditors have given their approval to some dubious schools. The problem, he writes, is that “the federal government presents accreditation as a fail-safe barometer of college quality….”

ACICS’s demise will no doubt produce some temporary in terrorem effects, as the remaining accreditors try to look tough. (ACICS itself tried that when its existence was in danger, revoking accreditation from two small business colleges in Pennsylvania in September.) No doubt there will be an increase in accreditor sanctions against weak schools (mostly for their financial troubles) and a few more will have their accreditation revoked. But there won’t be very much of that because the accreditors derive their revenues from fees paid by their “member” schools.

None of that will affect the underlying problem, which is that the U.S. draws large numbers of academically disengaged, poorly motivated students into accredited colleges. Those schools take their grant and loan money, then try, with varying degrees of effort, to educate them.

Trying to improve our higher education system through tougher accreditation is like the way the Soviet Union used to try to improve its economy through new and better plans drawn up by apparatchiks in Moscow. The only solution in both cases is free market competition. For us, that means ending federal subsidies for college. When students have to spend their own money if they want education or training, the problem of “predatory” schools will disappear on its own.

  • George

    “None of that will affect the underlying problem, which is that the U.S. draws large numbers of academically disengaged, poorly motivated students into accredited colleges. Those schools take their grant and loan money, then try, with varying degrees of effort, to educate them.” Right. But for state universities, as long as they have to compete for funding which is based on the number of students they admit, funding either from the state based on a formula or from student tuition directly, to survive universities will have to let in students who either can’t do the work or won’t do the work. Now that NC will impose big budget cuts if we do not graduate more of these students who should not be allowed to enroll, we are in a real pickle. Practically speaking, there is only one way to survive: they have to graduate.

    • David

      Downsize. It’s ridiculous to have “studies” majors for the purpose of giving unqualified students a way to graduate, then they go to government and can say they have a bachelor’s degree, a lot of money was spent and they could have been learning a trade.

      Get rid of the “studies” departments, terminate the jobs of their faculty, downsize a lot of administrators, simplify dorm life and generally get back to college life as it was about 50 years ago.

  • George Avery

    This is a way to get rid of a lot of for-profits without having to build a case against each individually. Personally, I think a lot of the attack on ITT was due to the fact that it competes with Union apprenticeship programs in Obama’s home state.

    • David

      Wouldn’t the apprenticeship program be better? The student is doing work and getting paid, and he or she is in a working environment learning skills that are definitely used, being held to standards needed to become a journeyman.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    This is the wrong graphic. OPE/NACIQI is over on K Street, seventh floor.

    It has been more than 10 years since I first paid them a visit, but was instead escorted out of the building by two security before given a chance to speak with anyone. Down in the lobby, I frantically ran through the phone numbers of those above me, but no one would answer. I asked my congressman’s LA to get me an appointment, but the department never returned the messages he left.

    The one thing I did manage to accomplish was to sign the OPE guest register — where I wrote that the purpose of my visit was “Reform.”

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    I like the FOUR RED FLAGS idea by Preston Cooper.
    If you want easily digested graphics, this is the way to go. It shows just how dysfunctional the present system is. SACS is next.

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/prestoncooper2/2016/06/15/college-accreditors-get-an-f/#7f5aa81f6f85

    • George Leef

      Perhaps SACS should be next, but it’s one of the supposedly elite regional accreditors that “oversees” lots of famous colleges and universities in the southeast. Therefore, I doubt that it will face derecognition as ACICS did.

  • David

    The for-profit colleges tend to have little or no admission requirements. Hence, the poor academically disengaged students who can’t get into a better school, or think it’s too much work or they would flunk out, go the for-profit route.

    It’s a poor use of student aid money and, to the extent that it’s loans, the student’s money and indebtedness. Kids come out of these with nowhere near the academic solid foundation they get in established non-profit schools including many community colleges.

    This is one Obama policy I can agree with. There may not be a good solution for these would-be students, but spending our money and indebting themselves this way makes things worse rather than better.

    • ck2nd

      David,

      I would agree that any program in any school that is giving unacceptable results should be ineligible for federal grants and loans. You assert that for profit colleges tend to have worse outcomes than non profit. That does not correspond with some of the data I have seen.

      I certainly hope that you agree that equivalent quantitative metrics should be applied to bot for- and non- profit school and the response to poor performance should be independent of the profit status.

      • David

        I’d agree to equivalent quantitative metrics of outputs, if they are rigorous tests of subject competence and mastery. If they measure “student engagement” or “equity” or other stuff like that, then the measures are distractions.

        If we don’t have proper measurements of outputs, and we hardly ever do in this politically correct world, I’d prefer to go back to measuring quality education by inputs: adequate admission requirements, sufficient contact hours, faculty qualified by old-fashioned standards (by which I’ll apply my bias to degrees from not-for-profit institutions) etc.

        • ck2nd

          David,

          I would be very simple on outputs, if 30% of Guaranteed Student Loans for a Institution/Major combination are in default no more GSLs to that Institution Major, I would also cut off pell grants and most research grants.

          • David

            That seems like a reasonable idea regarding student loans. You need to watch that they don’t do what law schools do, employing new graduates in low level staff positions at the school for a year so they can puff up their placement percentage.

            As for research grants, they come thru NASA, the DOD, etc. Those departments need improvement, and then the research grants they issue will be improved as well.

  • Dr__P

    Profit itself is under attack. The same issue of undereducating students at high cost is present in the “non”-profit sector.

    Indeed this smacks of the anti-competitive nature of the establishment which does not want reform.

  • mitchelllangbert

    The silver lining is that the revocation of accreditation authority from the for-profit sector can be extended under the Trump administration to the not-for-profit universities providing fake education in fields like education. A good place to start revoking accreditation authority is NCATE, the leading accreditor of the education schools.

    NCATE is responsible for the purveyance of illiteracy in America’s K-12 system because it emphasizes illiteracy-inducing superstition in the teaching of teachers. That includes requirements for social justice teaching but also for superstitious theories like the look-say method and other failed progressive education theories.

    Perhaps revocation of accreditation authority can be used by the Trump administration to close down a large swath of the dumbed down, illiteracy-producing colleges that produce graduates who cannot read, write, or perform basic mathematics. In fact, institution of minimal skills requirements for accrediation of any college might be a useful first step