Department of Education Echoes Sen. Elizabeth Warren, With Calls to Strip Authority From Troubled Accreditor ACICS

Posted By Derek Johnson on June 17, 2016 at 9:00 am
Department of Education Echoes Sen. Elizabeth Warren, With Calls to Strip Authority From Troubled Accreditor ACICS

Less than a week after Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (D) publicly hammered the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) for negligent oversight of the nation’s colleges and universities, the U.S. Department of Education recommended that the body be stripped of its authority.

The ACICS is responsible for the accreditation of more than 900 schools in the United States and Puerto Rico. In particular, the organization is charged with evaluating and renewing accreditation that gives a school access to federal student aid dollars. Warren’s report charged the accreditor with lax oversight, ignoring “clear evidence of wrongdoing,” and producing “astronomical debt levels and terrible outcomes for students.”

Furthermore, even when confronted with mistakes or errors, Warren’s report alleges that ACICS officials created a “dog and pony show” where the thinnest explanations from schools were sufficient to renew their accreditation status.

“The findings of this report [detail] an appalling record of failure on the part of ACICS…[that] stretch beyond ACICS’s decision to continue accrediting campuses of the fraudulent Corinthian Colleges until the for-profit’s ultimate collapse,” said Warren in a press release about the report.

The ACICS was the body responsible for renewing the accreditation of Corinthian Colleges even as it was under investigation by the FBI for deceptive and fraudulent marketing practices, including falsifying job placement rates in order to boost enrollment. Corinthian shut down last year and was forced to pay $550 million to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as part of a lawsuit. Now a report from the Department of Education has cited repeated similar offenses by other ACICS accredited schools.

“Department staff is concerned about the accuracy of job placement rates because…there is documentation of a widespread problem with ACICS-accredited institutions providing unverifiable or false data in their annual reports,” reads one section of the report.

Conflicts of interest may have fueled inaction

The move comes amidst a growing chorus of critics both inside and outside the higher education world about how effective accrediting agencies – in particular the ACICS – have been as gatekeepers of federal student aid. Longtime accreditation critic Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, has frequently referred to the accreditation process as “broken.” In 2013, she testified before Congress that the status quo was a “schizophrenic” arrangement, since accreditation bodies are typically made up of the very school officials and administrators who are being evaluated.

“The kind of peer review that assesses and enhances quality cannot thrive alongside the gatekeeping function necessary to referee an institution’s eligibility to receive federal funds—a financial life and death issue for most colleges and universities,” said Neal.

This too was among the specific charges leveled at ACICS in the Department of Education report:

“Department staff is aware that some previous members of the decision-making body were connected to institutions that were themselves the subject of serious concern to the agency for various reasons.”

In a short statement after the report was released, ACICS officials expressed “disappointment” at the recommendation but assured the public that the agency was taking necessary steps to reform its practices.

“ACICS takes the Department’s final staff report and recommendation very seriously. The recommendation to deny recognition is disappointing, and must be addressed directly by the Board and senior management of the agency.”

The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity is currently scheduled to rule on whether to strip the ACICS of its authority at a June 22 hearing. In a letter to the Department of Education, Warren also laid partial blame at the feet of the NACIQI for being overly deferential and providing “weak oversight” of the nation’s accrediting bodies.

“Indeed, it appears that NACIQI has wielded a rubber stamp for problematic accreditors, which have then applied their own rubber stamp for dozens of problematic colleges to access billions in federal aid dollars,” wrote Warren.

Controversy over using student outcomes as a measure

At the heart of the criticism leveled at accrediting agencies is the charge that they do not do not effectively monitor or regulate the quality of education received at many accredited colleges and universities. In particular, the industry has been extremely reluctant to incorporate or evaluate student outcome data, such as job placement or starting salaries into their decision-making process. In 2013, the Obama administration sought to develop a college ratings system that would display this information, but the project crashed and burned after a late lobbying push by colleges and universities. Eventually, the administration rolled out a scaled-back version of the site called “The New College Scorecard” without judging individual schools.

Many accrediting officials complain that lawmakers and the public misunderstand the role and responsibilities that come with their work. In particular, using student outcomes as a standard for renewal can be problematic, since many colleges and universities have different missions and serve different populations.

“[The government’s] determination to have accreditors give greater weight to bright-line indicators — rates of retention, graduation, job placement, student-loan repayment and defaults — is disturbing,” wrote Bell Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges and Mark Elgart, CEO of AdvancED in an op-ed last month. “Student-loan repayments and defaults and job placements are important outcomes of college but are often beyond an institution’s control. They more often reflect economic conditions and employment trends than what colleges do to prepare people with degrees that have value in the real world.”

Wheelan and Elgart go on to ask about how stricter uniform standards for student outcomes would affect the behavior of schools designed to cater to the disadvantaged in society. Should a community college that serves mostly low-income or at-risk populations be judged by the same standards as a flagship state university or prominent private college?

Support rises for federal intervention in college accreditation

But growing dissatisfaction with the inability of accreditation agencies to rein in soaring student debt and for-profit bad actors has led to increased tolerance for federal intervention. In addition to Warren, a number of other prominent lawmakers are beginning to look at potential reforms to the accreditation process.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s higher education plan calls for opening up accreditation to low-cost and online education providers while “rigorously” evaluating student outcomes. During his campaign for president, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) advocated opening up accreditation to a wider variety of education providers in order to break the “higher education cartel” that he believes is currently corrupting the accrediting process. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, has suggested last year that that the Higher Education Act be tweaked to streamline the accreditation process for high-performing schools in order to “spend more [time] and resources on institutions clearly in need of greater oversight.”

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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