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.