Biden administration moves to scrap powers of for-profit college accreditor

The Biden administration terminated the federal powers of a major accreditor of for-profit colleges Wednesday, the latest swing in a battle that stretches back to President Barack Obama.

Wednesday's 78-page decision, if it stands, would force colleges approved by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools to find a new accreditor or lose access to all federal student aid. The Education Department said the move was warranted after the organization’s failures to comply with federal rules.

ACICS' president has vowed to appeal the decision directly to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

The details: A senior Education Department official formally agreed with the agency’s career staff analysts and an independent federal advisory committee to withdraw ACICS’ government recognition.

“Accreditors are entrusted with assuring institutional quality and acting as gatekeepers to federal student aid,” the department said in a statement. “This oversight helps ensure that institutions deliver on the promises made to students and safeguard federal resources.”

The decision against ACICS is effectively a death sentence, just as it was when the Obama administration took the same action in 2016 amid heat from prominent critics of for-profit colleges including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

How we got here (again): In 2018, former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos launched a fresh look at the accreditor after a federal judge ruled the Obama administration failed to consider relevant evidence.

Some of the government’s findings against ACICS relate to its approval of Reagan National University, which a USA Today investigation last year uncovered was apparently operating with no students nor faculty. Other findings, such as the ACICS’s competency as an accreditor, stem from problems that the Trump administration identified when DeVos restored ACICS but gave the accreditor more time to fix.

“With this decision, the Department of Education is embarking on a fundamental shift in accreditation policy – with no notice or explanation,” ACICS President Michelle Edwards said in a statement on Wednesday.

“All accreditors should see this moment as a wake-up call,” Edwards said. “You may believe you are in compliance with the recognition criteria, but that is not enough. You may believe the process is objective and standard across all institutions, but that is no longer the case.”

ACICS critics pounce: Progressives have long sought the demise of the accreditor, which they view as a poster child of failed oversight of troubled colleges.

“Accreditors are supposed to act as trusted overseers of colleges and universities, but ACICS instead chose to be a rubber stamp for many of America’s most predatory for-profit colleges,” said Aaron Ament, president of the Student Defense consumer advocacy group, in a statement.

Marcella Bombardieri, a senior postsecondary education fellow at the Center for American Progress, described the decision as “overdue justice” for students and taxpayers.

“This should serve as a warning to all accreditors ... that the U.S. Department of Education takes seriously its responsibility to do right by taxpayers and that institutions that prey on students trying to get ahead will be held accountable,” Bombardieri said in a statement.