For-profit college accreditor agrees it needs a makeover

Embattled college accreditor ACICS announces that it will halt new applications for accreditation while it institutes reforms.

By Annie Waldman
ProPublica

A much-criticized group that accredits for-profit colleges announced Monday that it would temporarily stop taking new applications from campuses.

The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools described the move as an effort to restore “trust and confidence.”

ProPublica and others have detailed serious problems at the organization. As ProPublica reported, students at ACICS-accredited schools graduate at particularly low rates and often can’t pay off their debt.

“Every aspect of the agency must be re-evaluated, fortified and enhanced,” said ACICS’ top executive Anthony Bieda in a press release.

As part of the changes, the organization announced the creation of an ethics review panel to police conflict of interests by board members.

The move comes after ProPublica showed that many commissioners come from for-profit colleges under investigation.

The ethics board will have the power to remove any council members who work for schools that are under scrutiny or not meeting the accreditor’s own standards.

The accreditor’s reforms come amidst a deluge of criticism from state attorneys general, government officials and consumer protection groups.

In April, a dozen state attorneys general called on the Department of Education to rescind ACICS’ recognition. “Even in the crowded field of accrediting failures, ACICS deserves special opprobrium,” the attorneys general wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education John King.

Last week, California’s attorney general Kamala Harris joined the other attorneys general. In her own letter to the Department of Education, Harris noted the accreditor’s failure to penalize Corinthian Colleges, which kept its accreditation until the day it declared bankruptcy.

Under ACICS’ watch, the college chain received $3.5 billion in federal aid, despite investigations from the Department of Education’s inspector general, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and almost two dozen state attorneys general.

Last week, three former employees of for-profit college chain ITT Technical Institute also released letters they sent to the Department of Education detailing their experience with what they saw as ACICS’ shoddy accreditation practices.

One of the employees, Dawn Lueck, recalled that accreditation staff would seldom show up at campuses unannounced. During visits, they would rarely sit in during classes, instead sequestering themselves in conference rooms for paperwork review.

Lueck also said that the students or employees that were interviewed by the accrediting team were handpicked by the school, and were often coached by ITT administrative staff on what to say.

“Just because you meet ACICS’ compliance standards does not mean that you are not defrauding somebody or you’re not misleading somebody,” Lueck told ProPublica.

The letters were released by the student debt advocacy group, The Debt Collective.

“Three complaints of a workforce currently made up of approximately 10,000 do not constitute a pattern,” said an ITT spokeswoman, Nicole Elam, in an emailed statement. “ITT Educational Services takes any matter attacking its reputation and service to students seriously — and will be defending those in the appropriate arena at the appropriate time.” (Read the full statement here.)

Asked about the letters, ACICS’ chief executive Bieda said in an emailed statement that the council “takes the allegations very seriously.” He also wrote that in light of employee concerns, the use of student and faculty interviews within the accreditation process “will be revisited and analyzed.”

ITT is facing a series of ongoing government lawsuits and investigations related to alleged abusive recruiting tactics, predatory lending and fraud.

“While the career college sector has been under scrutiny for years,” said Elam, “there has not been a single finding of wrongdoing by a court of law to confirm the allegations made about ITT Tech.”

ACICS has accredited ITT for years. In April — four years after one of the first federal investigations began — the accreditor sanctioned the for-profit college chain, citing the pending litigation. According to recent ITT investor documents, the accreditor questioned the college’s “administrative capacity, organizational integrity, financial viability and ability to serve students.” The company will go before ACICS’ board in August to defend the college’s record and justify continued accreditation.

On Monday, a new report from the Center for American Progress also called on the Department of Education to revoke ACICS’ recognition, finding that the agency’s standards are substantially weaker than other accreditors, particularly in terms of publicly investigating and sanctioning colleges under scrutiny.

“We have evidence of other accreditors raising red flags and nothing publicly being done by ACICS,” said Ben Miller, the author of the report and the senior director of postsecondary education at the Center of American Progress. (The Center for American Progress receives funding from the Sandler Foundation, which also is a funder of ProPublica.)

At least 17 colleges accredited by ACICS have been subject to state and federal investigations or lawsuits, the Center for American Progress found. Over the past three years, those schools have received more than $5.7 billion in federal aid, representing half of all of the federal aid going to ACICS-accredited schools.

“If we think ACICS is too big to fail, we should just give up on accreditation altogether,” said Miller. “If the worst-seeming accreditor can’t get shut down, we shouldn’t even pretend that we’re dealing with quality.”

A Department of Education committee is scheduled to review ACICS’ accrediting status in late June.

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