The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), a troubled national accreditor that had its federal status revoked under the Obama administration, is no longer seeking recognition from the main private association that vets accreditors in the U.S., weakening its legitimacy in the higher education sector.
The announcement comes after a Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) committee recommended ACICS' recognition with the association be denied.
Observers told Education Dive that ACICS' move to withdraw puts new pressure on the U.S. Department of Education to once again take away its federal recognition, in light of the accreditor's continued troubled finances and failures in monitoring its member institutions, problems the department flagged in November.
A department official said it was unaware of the news before it was announced. CHEA's recognition is separate from the department's, and it "will evaluate and monitor ACICS in accordance with ED’s own legal and procedural requirements," the official said.
ACICS informed CHEA on Friday that it was withdrawing its application to be recognized by the association. ACICS said in a public statement that it was told in December that CHEA's Committee on Recognition recommended the association not recognize ACICS. The move does not prevent the institutions it accredits from getting federal aid.
The committee determined ACICS wasn't complying with nine of CHEA's standards, according to the statement. CHEA had revised these standards, and the changes took effect in 2019. ACICS cited concerns over the new standards in its statement.
"I am fully confident that the information submitted to date by ACICS makes clear that we currently satisfy any reasonable interpretation of CHEA's standards," ACICS President Michelle Edwards said in the statement. "Our decision to withdraw is based instead on our significant concerns related to the CHEA accreditation process and its ongoing implementation of several new policies."
She continued, "We have raised many questions with CHEA throughout the process, and too many of them remain unanswered to provide a reasonable level of comfort that ACICS will receive a full and fair review."
ACICS intends to reapply at a later date, Edwards added.
The accreditor withdrew its application before CHEA's Board of Directors was scheduled to meet and consider the recommendation to deny it recognition, said Judith Eaton, CHEA's president, in a statement emailed to Education Dive Friday afternoon. Neither ACICS' nor CHEA's statement names any of the nine standards the accreditor failed to meet.
ACICS accused CHEA of providing "little substantive feedback" on how CHEA interpreted the new standards, and said in the statement that this raised concerns as to whether it was receiving a "full and fair review." ACICS noted that it had "significant concerns" whether the CHEA staff and leadership board adequately reviewed its application materials.
CHEA's rules and processes for seeking recognition — while not completely public — are much less rigorous than the Education Department's, said Antoinette Flores, director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress. CHEA, which was formed by colleges seeking less oversight from the department, has gained significant influence in the past decade or so, Flores said.
Many state laws require accreditors to either have CHEA or department recognition in order to operate, she said. Without CHEA's backing, ACICS is in a much more precarious position, Flores said.
After the department pulled ACICS' recognition in 2016, it was largely CHEA's recognition that saved it from collapsing, said Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy at New America, a left-leaning think tank.
Two high-profile for-profit chains, Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute, were under ACICS purview when they shut down in 2015 and 2016, respectively. These closures are widely considered to have spurred strict federal oversight of the industry.
Many ACICS members left after the administration pulled its recognition. At one time, ACICS accredited 245 institutions, but as of December, its membership had shrunk to 74.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos restored ACICS' federal recognition in 2018, on the condition it would prove it had complied with all of the department's standards for accreditation within a year.
But with its dwindling membership and high legal fees, ACICS faced major financial problems. ACICS expected to lose more than $2 million last year and doesn't expect to break even in its budget until 2023, Inside Higher Ed reported in June. The Education Department contacted the accreditor just a few months later, citing potential "compliance concerns."
In a letter to Edwards in November, Herman Bounds, director of the department's Accreditation Group, wrote that despite the projected deficit, ACICS "has sufficient financial resources to carry out its accrediting responsibilities."
DeVos and Diane Auer Jones, the department's principal deputy under secretary, have long given ACICS a pass, McCann said. The department determined in 2018 that ACICS met 19 of 21 federal standards, according to Auer Jones, who was key in getting ACICS' recognition reinstated. But an earlier review by department career staff determined ACICS was out of step with those rules.
"I think there's no way the department can continue to recognize ACICS," Flores said.
This story has been updated with a comment from the U.S. Department of Education.