The U.S. Department of Education has found the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, a long-troubled accreditor, out of compliance with several regulations, according to a Federal Register notice filed Wednesday.
The agency found ACICS was out of compliance with regulations requiring competent and knowledgeable reviewers, and the staff and financial resources needed to carry out its responsibilities. It also discovered issues with its process to determine whether an institution meets its standards.
The notice calls for third parties to submit written comments about ACICS ahead of a department review of the accreditor this winter.
The Ed Department's accreditation advisory committee will review ACICS during its upcoming meeting in February. After it makes a recommendation on ACICS, the department could decide to stop recognizing the accreditor or give it time to come into compliance, said Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy at New America, a left-leaning think tank.
If ACICS loses recognition, the schools under its purview will have 18 months to find another accreditor or else risk losing access to federal student aid. The accrediting agency lists 83 college locations on its website.
Whether Donald Trump hangs onto the presidency could affect the outcome. "Any responsible administration would take the necessary action to stop using ACICS as a gatekeeper to taxpayer dollars," said McCann, a former staffer in the Obama administration's Ed Department. "We've seen the Trump administration grant reprieve after reprieve to ACICS."
The accreditor has faced accusations for years that it doesn't adequately vet or monitor schools. It lost federal recognition in 2016 after two large for-profit chains it oversaw, Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute, collapsed amid the Obama administration's regulatory crackdown on the sector.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos restored ACICS' recognition two years later over the objections of department staff.
But the accreditor has still been dogged with issues. The president of ACICS said last year that it will likely operate in the red until at least 2023 due to the closure of some of its member institutions and legal fees, Inside Higher Ed reported.
And in February, the Ed Department opened a probe into ACICS after a USA Today investigation found a for-profit college under its purview, Reagan National University, didn't have evidence of faculty or students. The move came just a couple of months after the department flagged other "compliance concerns" with the accreditor over its monitoring of two other schools.
ACICS also found itself in trouble in the past year with the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, an industry group that vets accreditors. After a CHEA committee noted it wasn't in compliance with nine of its standards and recommended denying it recognition, ACICS withdrew its consideration for recognition.