This post has been updated on December 14th with additional information from the Department of Education and an edit of the first bullet point below.
Yesterday (December 12th), the U.S. Department of Education responded as widely expected and denied the appeal by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) of the Department’s decision to withdraw it’s recognition as an accreditor.
As mentioned in my previous post, A Death Sentence for ACICS, the Department’s decision has profound implications for institutions currently accredited by ACICS, and more importantly, for their students.
As of December 12th:
1) ACICS is no longer recognized as an accreditor by the Education Department*
2) Approvals and licenses granted to schools “by means of accreditation” may be void
3) ACICS member institutions will be offered “provisional” access to Title IV financial aid funds by the Education Department IF they agree to additional monitoring and oversight conditions
4) The clock is again running on the 18-month time frame for ACICS member schools to find a new accreditor
* ACICS member schools are technically no longer accredited as the definition relates to federal recognition, since ACICS itself is no longer recognized, but the Department will provide a temporary process for “provisional” access to Title IV funds. A document made available by the Department says, “…although ACICS is no longer a federally recognized accrediting agency, the Department will continue the participation of schools accredited by ACICS in the federal student aid programs through provisional certification.” A related “Dear Colleague” letter states, “By statute, as a result of ACICS’s loss of recognition, all affected institutions will be placed on provisional certification until such time as they gain accreditation by another federally recognized accreditor, or the expiration of the 18-month period… These conditions serve to protect students and taxpayers in the absence of a federally recognized accreditor.” The full document is here. Additional information from the Department is available here.
ACICS has already stated that they will pursue injunctive relief via the courts, however, such relief has been very spotty in the past with courts tending to provide broad discretion to federal departments relative to regulatory decisions. Even if ACICS is “successful,” a court injunction could range from very limited to completely setting aside the Department’s decision while litigation proceeds.
The most immediate implications for ACICS member schools (and their students) are related to access to Title IV financial aid and any approvals and licenses conferred by means of accreditation. As noted above, access to Title IV is NOT automatic. All ACICS member institutions will receive communication in the very near future from the Education Department, which will require them to agree to certain additional oversight and monitoring requirements in order to “qualify” for Title IV funds over the next 18 months.
Secondary, but equally critical implications, relate to achieving accreditation through another accreditor before provisional access to Title IV expires. As mentioned in the “Death Sentence” post, for a host of reasons, some material number of ACICS member institutions will not be able to complete the accreditation application process with a new accreditor in anywhere near 18 months and some, who are already engaged with a new accreditor, will simply need more than 18 months to complete the process. There is another group of schools, which unfortunately will not be able to migrate to another accreditor at all due to outstanding regulatory issues or an inability to match current programs with an appropriate scope of accreditation on the accreditor side. In short, based on the current rules and process, it may be a minority of ACICS member institutions that are able to successfully migrate to a new accreditor within the allotted time frame.
Of course, the Education Department was well aware of this reality before denying the appeal from ACICS. The Department was also aware that, despite having other fairly austere options at its disposal, choosing to confirm the “death penalty” would have severe implications for probably hundreds of thousands of students currently pursuing educational programs in ACICS member schools. As such, the Department seems to have confirmed that it’s deliberative process is driven more by deeply held political and ideological motivations than by a commitment to actually ameliorate identified weaknesses at ACICS, while simultaneously insulating innocent students from collateral damage. Even if concerns about ACICS are valid, it is frankly difficult to conceive how the Department’s decision is remotely in the interest of the students and taxpayers for which it claims to advocate. The Department’s decision is analogous to closing down hospitals and throwing patients on the street due to concerns about the agency that oversees the hospitals.
Regardless of the merits of the Department’s decision to deny ACICS’ appeal, they have done so and it is now incumbent upon member institutions to do everything in their power to protect their students with the following actions:
1) Accept the additional requirements of provisional access to Title IV
2) Aggressively pursue accreditation with another accreditor
3) Negotiate continued approvals/licenses by means of accreditation
4) Confirm/expand teach-out and credit transfer agreements to protect students should institutions be unable to continue to operate
In short, the crisis for ACICS member schools and their constituents (students, employees, employers, taxpayers) is no longer theoretical and the clock is again running on access to provisional Title IV access.
In many cases, these institutions are now facing the single greatest existential crisis of their existence—in some cases with histories that exceed 100 years. The stakes are far too high to choose anything but the most aggressive course of action to protect the schools and their students. Although the Education Department failed to choose a course of action that would have simultaneously ensured accountability for ACICS while protecting member institutions and over half a million students, leadership in ACICS member schools do not have the luxury to be so reckless.
For those institutions which believe they could benefit from additional expert support, you are invited to reach out to:
Phone: 813-874-0110 or (407) 257-8568