US accrediting agency rejected as wider battles lie ahead

Demise of ACICS, favoured by for-profits, still leaves larger problem of venue shopping

March 8, 2021
Pig being judged in competition by people in white coats
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A bipartisan federal advisory panel has voted to revoke the federal recognition of a controversial accreditor of for-profit US colleges, a relatively easy decision in a realm with far tougher oversight questions yet waiting.

The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) voted 11-1 to end the recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), repeating an Obama-era determination.

The Biden administration must approve the NACIQI recommendation for ACICS to lose its right to grant the recognition that institutions need to participate in federal student aid programmes, and it is regarded as virtually certain to do so.

ACICS has faced long-standing criticism for granting federal accreditation to numerous failed for-profit operations, including the large Corinthian Colleges and ITT chains.

The agency “repeatedly has fallen down on the job in its ability to effectively identify, respond and monitor at-risk institutions that don’t meet a minimum bar of quality”, said Antoinette Flores, the managing director for post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress, a policy research and advocacy group.

ACICS, however, is just part of a wider problem in federal oversight at a time of fast-moving change and heavy financial pressures in higher education, Ms Flores said. “The problems are not confined to ACICS,” she said.

Part of the challenge, Ms Flores and other experts said, stems from the Trump administration, which consistently showed support for for-profit operations and declined to accept NACIQI’S previous call to disqualify ACICS.

The Trump administration also encouraged competition among accrediting agencies, implementing a rule change that allows the six major regional accreditors to assess institutions outside their geographic areas.

ACICS, by contrast, is among a tier of lower-status “regional” accreditors that already have that authority and often handle cases of for-profit institutions.

The regulatory changes are part of a worrying sign, Ms Flores said, that some institutions outside the for-profit sector may join them in shopping around for regional accreditors that offer the easiest performance reviews.

While that does not appear to have happened yet, at least half the regional accreditors have now invited institutions outside their traditional geographic boundaries, after all six said one year ago they would not, she said.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, does not appear likely to try to reverse the regulatory change allowing such out-of-boundary cases, said Rebecca Natow, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at Hofstra University.

“That’s a very involved process that takes a good amount of time and resources to complete,” Dr Natow said. “And I think it’s unlikely that revising that rule will be much of a priority for the Biden administration.”

ACICS initiated legal action to fight its disqualification during the Obama administration, and its leadership made clear to NACIQI that it regarded its critics as motivated by politics rather than substantive concern about its work.

The number of institutions seeking ACICS accreditation has fallen, however, to about 60, less than a quarter of its size at the end of the Obama administration.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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