By Madison Beck
On January 22, 2021, the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) released a staff report to the Senior Department Official on Recognition Compliance Issues regarding the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) and its compliance with specific sections of Title 34 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Citing the agency’s noncompliance with various aspects of the Secretary’s Criteria for Recognition or the agency’s ineffective application of those criteria, the report recommends the termination of recognition of ACICS as a lawful accrediting body.
Recognition as an accrediting body allows ACICS to receive federal funding for student assistance under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, 20 U.S.C. § 1070 et seq. (HEA). Title IV authorizes federal student-assistance programs that provide financial aid to students that enroll in eligible education programs at eligible postsecondary institutions of higher education. Title 34 of the CFR contains the current regulations that implement the HEA. Non-compliance with Title 34, therefore, implies that recognition as an accreditor and the Title IV funds that accompany it are improperly granted. This means that students at institutions licensed by California’s Bureau of Private Postsecondary Education (BPPE) may be victimized by their institution’s loss of proper accreditation.
In 2016, the USDOE ceased recognition of ACICS as an accrediting agency due to compliance issues. [23:1 CRLR 236–237] However, on November 21, 2018, then Education Secretary Betsy Devos decided to continue the federal recognition of ACICS as an accrediting body. To support this decision, Devos required ACICS to submit a report demonstrating its compliance with sections 602.15(a)(2) and 602.15(a)(6) of Title 34 of the CFR. ACICS submitted the report on December 19, 2019, but the current Department of Education staff has determined that ACICS’ report did not actually demonstrate proper compliance.
Specifically, section 602.15, Title 34 of the CFR, entitled “Administrative and Fiscal Responsibilities,” specifies in section 2 that agencies must have “competent and knowledgeable individuals” with specific qualifications in education as well as training by the agency who “conduct on-site evaluations, apply or establish its policies, and make its accrediting and preaccrediting decisions.” Although the compliance report indicates that active team chairs must attend and complete multiple trainings, USDOE staff found that ACICS failed to discuss the outcome of those who did not complete trainings, as well as provide dates of site visits to determine if training requirements were met on time.
Additionally, section 602.15(a)(6) requires “clear and effective controls against conflicts of interest… by the agency’s board members, commissioners, evaluation team members, consultants, administrative staff, and other agency representatives.” Staff found that ACICS also failed to establish that the required trainings of site visitors were effective for their requisite roles and responsibilities.
BPPE regulates over 1,000 private postsecondary institutions in California, some of which are accredited by ACICS. If ACICS loses its recognition, these institutions will lose their accreditation and potentially prevent their students from obtaining licenses in their chosen field that require graduation from an accredited school. This in turn could impact a student’s future job placement and financial aid. The Department of Education can allow schools accredited by ACICS to retain federal financial aid for up to 18 months, however, it is unclear whether this will be an option.
The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity will consider the staff’s report and make a final decision with respect to the Department of Education’s recognition of ACICS at a meeting on February 25, 2021.