ACICS Should Not Regain Its Ability to Grant Access to Federal Financial Aid

College students study at night in a campus reading room in Maryland, 2015.

On March 1, 2018, the Center for American Progress Postsecondary Education team submitted a public comment letter to the U.S. Department of Education regarding the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and School’s application to regain its ability to grant access to federal financial aid. This column adapts these comments, which can be found in full here.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education ruled that one of the country’s largest college watchdogs had been so derelict in its duty that it could no longer be trusted to grant access to federal financial aid. This agency—the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS)—had repeatedly honored institutions facing legal challenges, set weak standards for student outcomes, and faced a host of other problems. The move meant that while ACICS could continue accrediting colleges, having approval from this agency no longer granted schools’ access to federal financial aid.

Now, ACICS is trying to get back into U.S. federal aid programs. This comes fewer than two years after losing access and as most of the colleges it oversaw are well on their way to finding new agencies to approve them. ACICS is currently scheduled to go before a federal panel of independent experts in May, which will make a nonbinding recommendation to the secretary of education about whether the agency should be able to grant financial aid again. This process also includes a review by Department of Education staff to see if ACICS meets federal requirements. The goal is to wrap up this whole exercise by June 12, 2018, after which any ACICS school that does not have accreditation elsewhere loses its temporary ability to receive federal financial aid.

To inform this federal review, CAP’s Postsecondary Education team took another look at ACICS to see what had or had not changed since our June 2016 assessment of the agency revealed that the organization repeatedly failed the thousands of students attending schools it oversaw. Our new assessment includes analysis of ACICS public documents and newspaper websites, as well as thousands of pages of documents ACICS submitted to the Education Department that were only made available because of a lawsuit by The Century Foundation.

Unfortunately, the analysis finds that ACICS’ claims of turning over a new leaf are cosmetic at best and that the agency continues to struggle with schools that engage in questionable practices.

Briefly, our analysis found that:

  1. The Department of Education’s own regulations do not permit ACICS to be reviewed in May because it cannot demonstrate that it complied for two years with the federal standards for recognition. As a result, we do not believe that any consideration of the substance of ACICS’ application is appropriate.
  2. Even on substantive grounds, ACICS’ application does not merit approval for the following reasons:
    • ACICS cannot meet the legal requirement that asks it to show wide acceptance and support for its work.
    • ACICS appears to have significant difficulties overseeing institutions whose enrollment mostly consists of international students.
    • There are still instances of ACICS institutions having to settle lawsuits or face fines around allegations of fraud or misuse of federal funds.
    • ACICS standards still have core weaknesses that demonstrate an inability to prevent worrisome behavior. In particular, the agency has:
      • Insufficient standards for verifying whether students have a high school diploma.
      • A system of verifying whether graduates got placed into jobs that is open to manipulation because of its overwhelming reliance on email.
      • Loopholes in these placement-rate formulas that allow institutions with large numbers of international students to avoid consideration.
    • The blue ribbon panel promised by former ACICS leadership in 2016 never materialized.
    • ACICS’ supposed improvements—including a president change—have not been in place long enough to demonstrate any meaningful improvement.

The Department of Education is still cleaning up the results of ACICS’ past oversight failures. For instance, thousands of students who attended schools ACICS oversaw, such as ITT Technical Institute or some campuses of Corinthian Colleges, are still waiting to have their loans discharged amid concerns of fraud. Moreover, while ACICS looked the other way, other private oversight bodies toughened standards. Letting ACICS yet again grant access to federal financial aid would be an affront to those students still waiting for relief, and it would cheapen other agencies’ efforts at real gatekeeping.

Ben Miller is the senior director for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress. Antoinette Flores is a senior policy analyst at the Center.