New Report Shows DeVos Restored Shoddy College Accreditor Despite Opposition from Her Staff

The NY Times Erica Green summarizes in plain language what Betsy DeVos did this spring—and what, with more complexity, this blog post will explain: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos disregarded a scathing review by her own staff this spring when she reinstated the watchdog body that had accredited two scandal-scarred for-profit universities whose bankruptcies left tens of thousands of students with worthless degrees and mountains of debt, a new report has revealed.”

Before the Obama Department of Education put the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) out of business in 2016, ACICS had been instrumental in accrediting a number of unscrupulous, for-profit colleges whose fiscal survival depended on attracting students bringing dollars from federal loans. After ACICS was put out of business by the Obama Department of Education, ACICS filed a lawsuit claiming its record had not been fully examined. In March of this year, a federal judge ruled in favor of the accreditation agency—saying that the Department of Education still needs to consider 36,000 pages of information ACICS submitted that was never considered. On April 3, 2018, after the judge’s ruling, Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos conditionally reapproved ACICS pending further study.

Last Friday, however, DeVos’s department was forced to release an internal report drafted by career staff at the U.S. Department of Education, a report condemning ACICS and recommending that its status as an accreditor be terminated. In April, DeVos ignored this new staff report when she restored—conditionally— the agency’s status. The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Eric Kelderman explains: “For the second time in less than two years, officials at the U.S. Department of Education have recommended against approving a controversial accrediting agency that primarily oversees for-profit colleges. But their finding may have little effect on the accreditor’s future. Friday evening, the department released a 244-page document advising that the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, known as ACICS, failed to meet nearly 60 federal regulations on accreditation. The analysis is a draft of a report that was meant to be released in May at a hearing scheduled to consider the accreditor’s status. That hearing was cancelled following a judge’s order in a lawsuit filed by the council.”

Advocates have pressured for the release of the Department’s internal draft report, while, of course, ACICS has been trying to block the report’s becoming public.  The Wall Street Journal‘s Michelle Hackman explains: “The document was released Friday under the Freedom of Information Act after the Century Foundation… sued the Education Department for initially declining to make it public.  ‘It’s no wonder that ACICS and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos didn’t want this report to come out,’ said Alex Elson, a former Obama-era Education Department official whose firm, the National Student Loan Legal Defense Fund, helped sue the department. ‘Clearly, she was well aware that ACICS was getting worse, not better.’ The career staff’s findings could put Mrs. DeVos in a tough position as she weighs whether to allow the accreditor to continue operating.”

Inside Higher Education’s Andrew Kreighbaum describes details from the new report which would seem to undermine ACICS’ case for restoration as an approved accreditor: “The failures cited in the analysis overlap with many issues raised in previous staff findings in 2016. Among the most serious issues: department staff found no evidence that ACICS effectively evaluates recruitment practices by institutions—a key issue involved in investigations of the for-profit Corinthian Colleges chain, which documents showed paid recruiters incentives based on numbers of students enrolled. The report showed ACICS policies were not widely accepted among other accreditors or state agencies. And it found that the accreditor couldn’t prove it had put in place two of the biggest reforms it had promised over last year: graduation rate benchmarks for institutions and job placement verification. ACICS also failed to clear a standard dealing with conflict of interest policies involving staff and contractors….”

ACICS was the agency that had accredited Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute, for-profit trade schools shut down by the Obama Administration because their graduates were proven so poorly prepared that many were unable to find employment in the fields in which they had been trained. In an April report, the NY TimesErica Green explained: “Most public, private and nonprofit higher education institutions are regionally accredited, while national and specialized accreditors tend to draw for-profit and trade schools. To receive federal financial aid… schools must be accredited by an Education Department-recognized agency.”

Based on the judge’s decision in March, DeVos conditionally restored ACICS’s status as a federally approved accreditor. The judge demanded that the Department of Education review additional evidence, but DeVos made the decision—without the judge’s direction—to restore ACICS’s approval while the additional documents were to considered. It is DeVos’s responsibility as Secretary of Education either to restore or deny ACICS’s status as a federally authorized accreditor. Critics of ACICS charge that DeVos, who had previous access to the staff report released Friday, should have considered her staff’s recommendations and denied ACICS even a temporary reprieve.

Senators on both sides of the aisle have raised concerns, fearing that Secretary DeVos will permanently restore ACICS’s status as an approved accreditation agency.

In a letter sent May 24, 2018 Senators Elizabeth Warren (Mass), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Patty Murray (Wash.), Dick Durbin, (Ill.) and Maggie Hassan, (N.H) condemned Betsy DeVos’s action to have conditionally approved ACICS while  considering the materials ACICS had submitted: “We write to express our deep concern about, and to seek clarity regarding, your April 3, 2018 order restoring the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools’… status as a federally-recognized accreditor and your forthcoming review of ACICS’s 2016 petition for recognition. ACICS has a history of transgressions, noncompliance with federal law, failure to assure a quality education for hundreds of thousands of students, and leniency in accrediting institutions that faced federal and state investigations and penalties… While the court remanded the ACICS determination to you in order to incorporate materials submitted by ACICS in May 2016… the court made no suggestion that ACICS should be reinstated.  Nonetheless, your order immediately reinstates ACICS as a federally-recognized accrediting agency while the Department evaluates the Part II submission… By performing an about face, rather than addressing the supplementary material required by the court’s decision, the Department appears to be using the decision as a pretext to ignore the significant and damning record developed through the process.”

POLITICO‘s Michael Stratford describes Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley’s concerns: “Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) this year also raised concerns about several of the schools that ACICS approved, criticizing the ‘lax oversight’ of institutions he said were operating as ‘visa mills.'”