Students At Schools Overseen By Troubled Accrediting Agency ACICS Have Options

Posted By Derek Johnson on June 30, 2016 at 7:28 am
Students At Schools Overseen By Troubled Accrediting Agency ACICS Have Options

For the 800,000 students attending universities overseen by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, these past few weeks have likely induced no small amount of anxiety. First Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, came out with a scathing report lambasting the ACICS for lax oversight and negligence of schools it is responsible for monitoring. Less than a week later, the Department of Education recommended the organization be shut down. Finally, last week a federal panel concurred, voting in favor of a recommendation to terminate the ACICS and strip it of all authority to accredit colleges and universities. Absent a successful appeal or court challenge, this likely spells an end to the most prominent—and notorious—accreditation agencies in the country.

While the move is widely hailed as a victory for college standards and consumer advocacy (ACICS oversaw a large number of for-profit universities, including Corinthian Colleges), it is alarming to the hundreds of thousands of students attending or planning to attend ACICS accredited institutions. Without a stamp of approval from an accreditor, none of these schools can legally accept federal student aid, which means a potential mass exodus of students.

The prospects of upending their lives, transferring to other schools or graduating from an unaccredited school are very real for students just beginning or in the midst of their college careers at these institutions. Here’s a look at some options these students face in the wake of the government’s decision.

Do nothing and graduate from an accredited institution

Students halfway through their degree programs likely will never see the consequences of ACICS shutting down. If the Department of Education follows the recommendation to terminate, the decision won’t actually take effect for another 18 months. Reacting to the decision on the department’s blog, communications officer Matt Lehrich makes it clear that most students who enrolled at these institutions before the decision will be able to graduate with an accredited degree.

“First—don’t panic,” writes Lehrich. “The chain of events that plays out next will take—at minimum—more than 18 months. That means that many of the students who already have started at one of these schools will be able to complete their certificates or degrees before there is a chance of anything changing.”

This is especially true for students at for-profit universities, where just under half of the degrees awarded come from programs that are less than four years. If the ACICS challenges the decision in court, a final end date could potentially be years away. The ACICS has already started the process of revamping its criteria for accreditation to address concerns about quality and student outcomes. A lengthy legal challenge could potentially give the organization additional time and leverage to reach a settlement with the government.

You also don’t need to lift a finger if you have already graduated from one of these institutions. The government’s decision is not retroactive; if your school was accredited at the time you graduated, your degree is as valid as any other.

Get accredited by a different organization

If the ACICS is unsuccessful in overturning the decision, each school under its umbrella will have the opportunity to seek alternative accreditation from one of the other accrediting agencies. For some institutions this might be easier said than done, since one of the main justifications the Department of Education cited for shutting ACICS down was its failure to crack down on poor performing schools and predatory diploma mills.

Mike Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, says two factors may impact ACICS for-profit schools that seek alternative accreditation: the applicability of their coursework and reluctance on the part of other accreditation agencies wary of approving the same universities and colleges whose poor outcomes led to ACICS’ downfall.

“I would say there’s pressure on accrediting institutions to ensure their members are high quality and deliver on what they say,” Reilly says. “I could see them being reluctant to bringing on lots of institutions where those outcomes have been questioned.”

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation called the decision to shut down ACICS “understandable and unfortunate,” contending that the organization will be forever “tainted.”

“Hundreds of thousands of students and hundreds of campuses could have been shielded from the disruption that likely school closings and shifts from one accreditor to another would mean—inability to complete an education, having a credential from a school that is called into question, fairly or unfairly, because it is ACICS-accredited.”

Transfer to another school

Students more than 18 months away from graduating may need to consider transferring. This option, however, comes with its own set of challenges, primarily ensuring that credits from the current school will transfer and count toward a degree at the new school. The inability to transfer credits is a big problem in higher education, particularly at for-profit colleges and schools that use national accreditation agencies.

Joint guidelines issued by The American Council on Education, AACRAO and CHEA note three considerations that schools should take into account when accepting credits from other institutions:

“(1) the educational quality of the learning experience which the student transfers; (2) the comparability of the nature, content, and level of the learning experience to that offered by the receiving institution; and (3) the appropriateness and applicability of the learning experience to the programs offered by the receiving institution, in light of the student’s educational goals.”

According to the Department of Education, for-profit schools are not eligible for “pre-accreditation” status, which allows easy transfer from one accreditation body to another. Instead, they must start from scratch and pass the full review process of their new accreditor in order to maintain their status.

There are two kinds of accreditation bodies: regional agencies and national agencies. Reilly said schools under regional accreditors tend to provide more academic coursework that transfers smoothly to many four-year baccalaureate programs, while schools under national accreditors tend to offer more applied or occupational coursework. Each college has its own set of policies for accepting credits from other institutions. Some may accept credits on a conditional basis, allowing the student to demonstrate that they retain expected knowledge and skills in future courses. The Department of Education recommends that each school facing a loss of accreditation make available a “teachout plan” providing information about nearby schools that offer similar programs and any agreements developed regarding credit transfers.

“Somebody who is at one of those schools, they may have transfer and articulation agreements with specific institutions. That is a question students should be asking,” Reilly says.

Even before the Department of Education started investigating, students from ACICS schools had trouble transferring credits, he says. “To be honest it’s less of an issue because many [ACICS] students have had difficulty transferring their credits in the past, but this will potentially force many more to transfer at higher rates.”

Petition the government

Theoretically, loss of accreditation does not mean a college is obligated to shut down. But in reality, cutting off access to federal student aid is akin to a death sentence for most institutions of higher learning. However, under certain conditions students from ACICS-accredited institutions may be able to write off some or all of their student loan debt as recompense.

This is what happened to students at Corinthian Colleges, where their schools abruptly shut down in April 2015 following a lengthy investigation into deceptive marketing and job placement rates. Thousands of students found themselves mired in debt with no degree to show for it. Depending on when they were enrolled or their current status at the time of the closures, the federal government offered various forms of debt-relief or loan forbearance to affected students.

For ACICS-accredited schools that shut down in the face of the federal government’s decision, students would be eligible for similar relief. From a June 2016 FAQ on federal recognition for accrediting agencies:

“Students may opt to finish their program under the teachout agreement, but are not required to do so, nor are they required to finish the teachout if they decide to try it. If, before a student completes his or her educational program, the institution closes, or if it closes within 120 days of the student withdrawing from enrollment, the student may apply for a ‘closed school discharge’ of his or her federal direct loans borrowed to attend that institution.”

If a student believes that their university violated applicable state law or misrepresented its services in a way that influenced his or her decision to take out student loans, the student also may be eligible for cancellation of those loans through “defense to repayment.”

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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