- Education Secretary Betsy DeVos permanently reinstated federal recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) on Wednesday, The Washington Post reported. The Obama administration removed the agency's recognition in 2016 when officials concluded it was not making sure the colleges it oversaw met certain standards following the collapse of two ACICS-accredited for-profit chains, Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute.
- The decision means about 70 institutions that remain accredited with ACICS will be able to continue receiving Title IV funds, according to Inside Higher Ed. DeVos temporarily restored ACICS's federal recognition earlier this year until a final decision about the agency's future was reached, keeping afloat many of the for-profit colleges it accredits that rely heavily on students receiving financial aid.
- Critics have noted ACICS is still not compliant with two out of 21 of the Ed Department's compliance standards that determine whether the agency has qualified employees and policies in place to avoid conflicts of interest.
Even with the Ed Department's seal of approval and the critical access to federal student loans it brings, ACICS still faces threats to its survival. For one, it remains unclear whether the accreditor will be able to attract new for-profit colleges. In 2016, the agency oversaw around 250 colleges, a figure that has since fallen by roughly two-thirds as many institutions under its umbrella shuttered or found a new accreditor, according to a recent analysis by the Center for American Progress.
Several of the remaining colleges have been unable to find a new accreditor. That includes those run by for-profit operator Education Corporation of America (ECA), which accounts for nearly half of the enrollment at ACICS institutions. ECA-owned Virginia College, for example, unsuccessfully attempted to switch from ACICS to the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET) earlier this year. ACCET denied approval to the college in a letter that detailed its failures, including that nearly all of its 33 campuses didn't meet the accreditor's minimum standards for graduation rates and other student outcomes.
Facing a decline in enrollment, ECA filed a lawsuit in federal district court requesting the Ed Department appoint someone to oversee its assets while it restructures so it could avoid bankruptcy — allowing it to maintain access to federal student aid. The lawsuit, which has since been tossed out, stated ECA had essentially stopped making debt payments and had been threatened with eviction on some of its campuses.
The rescue of the embattled accreditor is the latest effort by the Ed Department to partially reverse the effects of the Obama administration's crackdown on the industry. DeVos has also moved to roll back other Obama-era regulations that put tighter controls on the for-profit sector. Among them is its planned repeal of the gainful employment rule, which cut off federal student loans at a college if it couldn't prove its graduates could find jobs with earnings that enabled them to pay off their debts.
Ed Department officials have said changes to the College Scorecard, an online database that tracks costs and student outcomes at higher education institutions across the nation, will hold for-profits accountable amid the regulatory overhaul. The agency has removed a tool that let users compare how a college's student outcomes stacked up against the national median and decided to instead provide data on debt and earnings by different programs.