DeVos Announces Review of ACICS Ruling, Accreditor Reinstated for Now

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos late on Tuesday announced the Department of Education (ED) will review a petition for federal recognition from the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), following a recent court ruling that directed ED to reconsider the accreditation agency's situation.

Until a final determination is made by DeVos, ACICS's status as a federally recognized accreditor has been reinstated. A federal judge ruled in late March that former Education Secretary John B. King Jr.'s "decisionmaking process was flawed," and that King and ED failed to consider all relevant evidence, which the judge said violated part of the Higher Education Act (HEA). Since ACICS lost its federal recognition in December 2016, the accrediting agency — which oversaw more than 200 institutions, including ITT Educational Services and Corinthian Colleges — has pressed to have its status reviewed.

ACICS unsuccessfully appealed ED's initial September 2016 decision, and filed a lawsuit shortly after the final decision in December 2016, after ED also imposed additional requirements on institutions formerly accredited by ACICS in order to maintain their access to Title IV student aid programs.

"As the court ordered, we will fairly consider all of the facts presented and make an appropriate determination on ACICS's petition," DeVos said in a statement Tuesday.

In a signed order, DeVos said she will now consider the additional evidence ACICS submitted in May 2016 before making a final determination. She said she may also consider giving the agency more time to make adjustments if it is not found to be fully in compliance.

"If I determine that full recognition is not warranted, I will also consider whether, instead of denial, ACICS should be allowed continued recognition for a period not to exceed 12 months to demonstrate compliance with any criteria for which I find ACICS is not in compliance," DeVos wrote.

ED is also allowing ACICS to submit additional evidence, which it must submit to ED no later than May 30, 2018.

Michelle Edwards, president of ACICS, said in a statement that the agency is "gratified by the court's ruling requiring the Department to review evidence submitted by ACICS documenting many meaningful reforms implemented by the organization."

"The Department's decision ensures that students currently attending ACICS schools are not negatively impacted pending the Department's ongoing review process," Edwards continued. "In the last two years, ACICS has implemented significant reforms designed to address concerns, strengthen the accreditation process and, ultimately, enhance our ability to hold schools accountable for meaningful student outcomes. These efforts are comprehensive and ongoing, and we look forward to working with the Department to ensure we are not only in full compliance with current requirements, but also in a position to become, over time, a leader among accreditors."

Still, some questioned whether the review process will help ACICS in the end.

Antoinette Flores, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, wrote on Twitter that the additional information the accrediting agency submitted would not apply to all of the criteria for which it was found out of compliance.

Ben Miller, senior director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, said in a statement said the agency "cannot even go a year without one of its schools having to settle a lawsuit around allegations of fraud."

"Allowing ACICS to become a gatekeeper of financial aid again puts thousands of students at risk from schools that could not prove they are worthy of approval from a real gatekeeper," Miller said. "This decision is just the latest example of Secretary DeVos placing corporate interests above students."

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has also identified issues within the nation's accreditation system. In a January 2018 report, the GAO found that experts said some accreditors' hesitation to revoke accreditation status could be a problem. In a previous report, the GAO found that accreditors typically are no more likely to take action against poor performing institutions than schools with better student outcomes.

The experts said that some accreditors may be hesitant to revoke an institution's accreditation status because it could lead an institution to become ineligible to participate in Title IV programs, and potentially lead to school closure — as was the case with ITT.

"Recent school closures have displaced tens of thousands of students and resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in financial losses for the federal government," the January GAO report said. "Policymakers and other key stakeholders have raised questions about how effectively the U.S. accreditation system ensures academic quality at schools and protects students' and taxpayers' investment in higher education."

 

Publication Date: 4/5/2018


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