United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Representative Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), along with six of their Senate colleagues and six of their House colleagues, sent a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to request information regarding the U.S. Department of Education's decision to reinstate the Accrediting Council of Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) as a federally-recognized accreditor. The lawmakers' letter follows a troubling report that the Department misrepresented endorsements in support of reinstating ACICS's recognition.
The Department grants federal recognition to national and regional institutional accrediting agencies when the agencies are found to be "reliable authorities concerning the quality of education or training offered by the institutions of higher education or higher education programs they accredit."
"ACICS," the lawmakers wrote, "has long faced concerns about its ability to meet federal standards. In 2015, it facilitated $4.76 billion in federal aid payments to 245 primarily for-profit career colleges while facing "pervasive compliance problems" that included allegations of a lack of oversight of predatory and fraudulent for-profit institutions such as the now collapsed Corinthian Colleges, Inc. and ITT Educational Services, Inc. In June of 2016, the Department's staff found ACICS to be out of compliance with 21 criteria for recognition." In September 2016, the Department of Education, on the recommendation of a federal accreditation advisory panel, terminated ACICS's federal recognition, citing "pervasive compliance problems," including allegations of a lack of oversight of predatory and fraudulent for-profit colleges and universities.
Last month, the Department's Senior Designated Official (SDO) issued a troubling recommendation to continue ACICS's recognition, despite ACICS's history of noncompliance. A new report in Politico, however, indicated that in this recommendation, the SDO significantly misrepresented the endorsements of multiple accrediting agencies in an effort to demonstrate that ACICS met one of 21 federal criteria that they are "widely accepted" by the higher education community.
In their letter to Secretary DeVos, the lawmakers pointed out that although the SDO claimed that a group of nine accrediting agencies endorsed ACICS, all but one of those agencies denied ever sending any endorsement, and raised questions about the other conclusions that the Department made about ACICS's compliance with federal standards. The lawmakers requested that the Department immediately release all documents used in its decision to restore the federal recognition of ACICS.
"Given this misrepresentation and ACICS's appalling track record of failing to meet federal criteria, the Department must provide transparency to this opaque process and release the full set of ACICS documents used by the SDO as a basis for recommending an extension of the accrediting agency's federal recognition," the lawmakers wrote. "The American people deserve to know why the Department would recommend restoring federal recognition to an organization with such a questionable history."
Also signing the letter were Senators Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Representatives Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.), Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), and Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.).
The lawmakers requested the documents be provided by October 25, 2018.
In a separate letter to the nine accreditors that disputed that they ever endorsed ACICS, Senators Warren, Durbin, Blumenthal and Brown requested information related to the Department's misrepresentation.