More Time for ACICS Schools Puts Students and Taxpayers in Harm’s Way

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MI), current chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, speaks to supporters following an election victory, November 4, 2014.

Last December, the U.S. Department of Education kicked the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) out of its role as a gatekeeper for colleges’ access to federal financial aid. As an accreditation agency, ACICS should have served as an independent review of the quality of colleges to ensure that they merited taxpayer money. Instead, the organization stood by as colleges faced accusations of fraud, harming students and taxpayers.

Now, the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations wants to give ACICS institutions a three-year license to operate with no oversight—a foolish experiment unlikely to benefit anyone besides school owners looking to pocket taxpayer money before their schools shut down. And it will harm thousands of students in the process.

The provision in question concerns the amount of time colleges approved by ACICS get to find a new accreditation agency. Under current law, institutions whose accreditor can no longer serve as a gatekeeper to federal financial aid can still participate in these programs for up to 18 months while they seek approval from a new agency. The Senate language doubles this time limit to three years, with no requirements for schools to show any evidence that another agency might accept them.

This language is likely intended to address complaints that institutions may not meet the 18-month deadline because accreditors simply could not complete the entire review process during the allotted time. Whether this is an actual possibility cannot, unfortunately, be determined right now without more transparency from accreditors.

The real beneficiaries of this provision, however, are lousy colleges, which are now given an open invitation to commit fraud. As the Center for American Progress reported in June, nearly all ACICS colleges that are still operating have in-process applications with a new accreditation agency. The better schools will work through those agencies’ review processes in the coming months and be in the clear. Meanwhile, the institutions that still do not have a new accreditation agency well into any extended eligibility period are likely to be ones that other agencies have refused to take, due to concerns about poor outcomes, shaky finances, fraud accusations, or other warning flags.

If this language passes, some colleges would be in a situation where they know no agency will take them—meaning they have no future—but they can still get federal money for several years. That is a massive incentive to decimate educational quality in pursuit of quick profits. Why should a school try to make its programs better; retain good faculty; or take other important, improvement-oriented actions if it knows they won’t pay off down the line? Federal accountability rules also will not be a deterrent because most of their consequences only kick in after several years of troubling performance.

The Obama administration recognized the risk of ACICS schools running out the clock while receiving federal money. After ending ACICS’ recognition, the Department of Education required colleges to demonstrate that they had met certain thresholds on the path to finding a new accreditor—such as having an in-process application at another accreditor and having hosted a visit to campus from an accreditor’s representatives. Institutions that did not meet these thresholds would not be able to enroll new students and would have to provide disclosures to students and obtain a letter of credit. The idea is that those institutions should not receive the full 18 months allotted because they clearly were not trying to get approval elsewhere.

The Senate provision would break the link between accreditation and federal financial aid—a structure that dates to the creation of these programs in 1965. It would allow schools to receive taxpayer money without accreditor approval for far longer than allowed before. And it would be coming at a time when the Department of Education has reversed multiple consumer protections created by the Obama administration.

There is at least one small bright spot in the suggested Senate language, however. It does not allow institutions to go back to ACICS if the accreditor somehow obtains new federal recognition more than 18 months after it initially lost it. This is a crucial protection for ensuring that the worst colleges at ACICS don’t get rejected by other accreditors then wait to regain access to federal aid. This is particularly important because ACICS announced yesterday that it will try to get approved again by the Department of Education next spring before the 18-month window expires around June of next year.

If Congress is truly concerned about otherwise viable institutions not meeting the 18-month deadline, there are far more sensible solutions. For one, any extension needs to be much shorter—no more than six months on top of the 18 already provided. And any additional time must come with process benchmarks that protect against fraud and cannot be changed. These include ensuring that colleges have site visits conducted by accreditors, produce the lengthy self-evaluations accreditors require, and fulfill other indicators that an accreditation agency may approve an application. If colleges don’t meet the benchmarks, they should be prohibited from enrolling new students, required to submit plans for winding down, and required to give the Department of Education a letter of credit. Similarly, if a college gets rejected by all accreditors that can authorize its program types—for instance, only some accreditors can approve bachelor’s or master’s degrees for federal aid—it too should move toward closure.

It’s easy to dismiss this provision as a small change for a set of schools in a unique circumstance. But it sets a dangerous precedent. If it’s all right for institutions to operate without accreditor oversight for three years, why not extend the deadline longer? Such a move would also create ground for arguing to separate completely the functions of accreditation and federal financial aid access, with no other forms of protections or oversight put in its place.

While it is unknown exactly what will come of this provision and how it might change as it works through the legislative process, one thing is certain: If left unchanged, students are about to find out what it’s like to be guinea pigs in a questionable experiment on college quality.

Ben Miller is the senior director for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.