Why ACICS Will Likely Close Soon

The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) has had a rather eventful last few years. The onetime accreditor of ITT Tech, Corinthian Colleges, and hundreds of other vocationally-focused colleges (primarily in the for-profit sector) was stripped of its ability to recognize colleges for federal financial aid purposes by the U.S. Department of Education in December 2016. This meant that 269 ACICS-accredited colleges serving 527,000 students had 18 months (until June 12, 2018) to find a new accreditor or their students would no longer have access to federal grants or student loans.

While ACICS-accredited colleges scrambled to find a new accreditor, ACICS sued the U.S. Department of Education in federal court on the grounds that their accreditation was unfairly terminated. In late March, a federal judge agreed with ACICS that there had been a procedural violation and sent the case back to the Department of Education to be reconsidered. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos took a different view than former Secretary John King, announcing last week that ACICS would be allowed to become a recognized accreditor once again while ED continues to review the case.

Secretary DeVos’s decision gives ACICS at least a temporary reprieve by resetting the clock on how long ACICS-recognized colleges can receive federal financial aid—and this not surprisingly resulted in howls of protest from representatives of liberal-leaning organizations. But although ACICS will continue to exist in the short term, I expect that ACICS will no longer exist in five years. I explain the two reasons for my prediction below.

First, most ACICS-accredited colleges have already moved to another accreditor or are in the process of doing so. A Center for American Progress analysis shows that just 19 of the 269 colleges that were a part of ACICS are likely still open and have not made a clear move toward another accreditor. A number of colleges have already closed, while others are well on the road to accreditation. The 19 colleges that will likely stick with ACICS have about 25,000 students—making it financially difficult for ACICS to continue with such a small membership.

Second, I don’t think that ACICS’s reputation can ever recover from the experience of having accredited ITT Tech and Corinthian and then having its federal recognition stripped by the Obama administration. Although ACICS has a goal of being “a leader among accreditors,” any college that seeks ACICS accreditation is taking a sizable risk at this point. Blue-state attorneys general will likely continue to investigate ACICS given their longstanding opposition to the body, and future Democratic presidents may try to derecognize ACICS in an effort to undo the Trump administration’s actions. Large for-profits are also likely to avoid ACICS due to concerns from shareholders, and smaller for-profits may not be enough for the organization to make ends meet.

As far as I know, ACICS may be making real strides toward raising their standards and improving student outcomes. But any efforts they are undertaking are likely to be in vain as colleges try to find a safer harbor, resulting in their eventual collapse.

What the Leading Republican Presidential Candidates Are Saying About College Affordability

With cumulative student loan debt exceeding $1.2 trillion and the average net price of college attendance continuing to rise, college affordability has become an important issue in the 2016 presidential election. Most of the attention on this topic has been in the Democratic primary, in which Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both have ambitious plans to make public colleges either tuition-free (Sanders) or debt-free (Clinton) that have played a prominent role in their campaigns.

College affordability has played a much smaller role in the Republican primary to this point, with topics such as foreign policy and immigration getting far more attention from the candidates. Yet the rising price of college is likely to be an important issue in the general election, particularly among younger adults who tend to lean toward supporting Democratic candidates. Here, I examine the leading Republican candidates’ positions on how to make higher education more affordable for students and their families.

Donald Trump

The billionaire businessman and political novice has gained attention recently for his foray into for-profit higher education through the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative, which was previously known as Trump University before New York’s attorney general sued to stop Trump from using the term “university.” Trump is also facing lawsuits from former students who claimed that they got no value from their investment of up to $35,000 in real estate seminars.

In multiple interviews, Trump has stated his intention to either close or substantially downsize the U.S. Department of Education, although much of his rationale appears to be due to opposition to the Common Core standards at the K-12 level. In his only statement regarding higher education affordability, Trump has criticized the Department of Education for making a profit on the federal student loan program. Trump shares this view with many Democratic legislators, even though government agencies have different opinions about the profitability of student loans.

Sen. Marco Rubio

The first-term Florida senator has significant experience with higher education, having been an adjunct professor of political science at Florida International University between 2008 and 2015. In the Senate, Rubio has co-sponsored bipartisan legislation that would make income-based repayment the default option for federal student loans and would require colleges to report additional data on student outcomes. He has also co-sponsored a bipartisan bill that would open the federal financial aid program to alternative education providers that can meet certain outcome standards and gain accreditation, although he has also faced criticism for his defense of for-profit colleges whose access to federal funds has been threatened.

Rubio has also supported ideas that are likely to appeal to Republican primary voters but may not be as popular with independent-minded voters in a general election. Like Trump, Rubio has also called for the elimination of the Department of Education. Rubio has noted that some programs currently administered by the federal government should continue (such as the federal student loan program), but they could be absorbed by the Department of the Treasury or other agencies. He has sponsored legislation in the Senate to allow students to use private income share agreements, which function similarly to private loans with income-based repayment, to finance their education. This idea has been criticized as a form of indentured servitude, even though federal loans function in similar ways.

Sen. Ted Cruz

The first-term Texas senator has said relatively little about college affordability, other than noting that he just recently paid off his $100,000 in student loan debt. Like the other GOP candidates, he has called for the vast majority of the Department of Education to be eliminated. Cruz would appoint an Education Secretary whose sole goal would be to determine which programs should remain and give most funding to the states via block grants. In 2012, Cruz indicated that he would keep federal student aid funds in the federal budget, but transfer funding and authority to the states.

As Democrats will certainly keep at least 40 seats in the U.S. Senate (the minimum needed to sustain a filibuster to block legislation) and may gain a majority in this fall’s election, it doesn’t appear that the Department of Education will go away anytime soon. But if any of these three Republican candidates are elected, their actions on affordability—and the implications for both students and taxpayers—are likely to be quite different than what a Clinton or Sanders administration will be proposing.

It’s Time to Make Accreditation Reports Public

The higher education world is abuzz about this week’s great piece in The Wall Street Journal questioning the effectiveness of higher education accrediting agencies, whose seal of approval is required for a college to receive federal student financial aid dollars. In the front-page article, Andrea Fuller and Douglas Belkin of the WSJ note that at least 11 accredited four-year colleges had federal graduation rates (excluding part-time and transfer students, among others) below 10%, which leads one to question whether accreditors are doing their job in ensuring institutional quality. A 2014 Government Accountability Office report concluded that accreditors are more likely to yank a college’s accreditation over financial concerns than academic concerns, calling for additional oversight from the U.S. Department of Education.

Congress has also been placing pressure on accreditors in recent weeks due to the collapse of the accredited Corinthian chain of for-profit colleges and the Department of Education’s announcement that at least some Corinthian students will qualify for loan forgiveness. The head of the main accreditation body responsible for most Corinthian campuses got grilled by Senate Democrats in a hearing this week for not pulling the campuses’ accreditation before the chain collapsed. As a part of the (hopefully) impending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are interested in a potential overhaul of the accreditation system.

Students, their families, policymakers, and the general public have a clear and compelling interest in reading the reports from accrediting agencies and knowing whether colleges are facing sanctions for some aspect of academic or fiscal performance. Yet these reports, which are produced by nonprofit accrediting agencies, are rarely available to the public. For the WSJ piece, the reporters were able to use open-records requests to get accreditation reports for 50 colleges with the lowest graduation rates. I was recently at a conference where the GAO presented on their aforementioned accreditation report and asked whether the data they compiled on accreditor sanctions was available to the public. They suggested I file an open records request, something which I’ve (unsuccessfully) done for another paper.

Basic information about a college’s accreditation status and reports –including any sanctions and key recommendations for improvement—should be readily available to the public as a requirement for federal financial aid eligibility. And this should cover all types of colleges, including private nonprofit and for-profit colleges that accept federal funds. The federal government doesn’t necessarily have to get involved in an accreditation process (a key concern of colleges and universities), but it can use its clout to make additional data available to the public. (Students probably won’t go to the college’s website and read the reports, but third-party groups like guidance counselors and college rankings providers would work to get the information out in more usable form.) A little sunshine in the accreditation process has the potential to be a wonderful disinfectant.

The Higher Learning Commission’s Accreditation Gamble

Accrediting bodies play an important role in judging the quality (or at least the competency) of American colleges and universities. There are six accreditors which cover the majority of non-profit, non-religious postsecondary institutions, including the powerful Higher Learning Commission in the Midwest.  The HLC recently informed Apollo Group, the owner of the University of Phoenix, that it may be placed on probation due to concerns about administrative and governance structures.

Part of Phoenix’s accrediting concerns may be due to a philosophical shift at the HLC, emphasizing the public purposes of higher education. As noted in an Inside Higher Ed article on the topic, Sylvia Manning, president of the HLC, stated the priority that education be a public good. The new accrediting criteria include the following statement:

“The institution’s educational responsibilities take primacy over other purposes, such as generating financial returns for investors, contributing to a related or parent organization, or supporting external interests.”

This shift occurs in the midst of questions about the purposes of the current accreditation structure. While colleges must be accredited in order for students to receive federal financial aid dollars, the federal government currently has no direct involvement in the accreditation structure. Accrediting bodies also focus on degree programs instead of individual courses, something which has also been questioned.

Given the current decentralized structure of accreditation, Phoenix could easily move to another of the main regional nonprofit accrediting bodies—or it could go through a body focusing on private colleges and universities. The latter would likely be easier for Phoenix, as it would have to answer to more like-minded critics. While these bodies are viewed as being less prestigious than the HLC, it is an open question whether students care about the accrediting body—as long as they can receive financial aid.

The Higher Learning Commission is taking a gamble with its move toward placing Phoenix on probation, partially due to the new criteria. They need to carefully consider whether it is better to have oversight over one of the nation’s largest and most powerful postsecondary institutions or to steer them toward a more friendly accrediting body. Traditional accrediting bodies should also consider the possibility that the federal government will get into the accreditation business if for-profits leave groups like the HLC. If the HLC chooses to focus on Phoenix’s control instead of its academic competency, a chain reaction could be set off which may end up with them being replaced by federal oversight.