Accreditor Made Casualty of For-Profit Scandal

WASHINGTON (CN) – A group no longer recognized by the Department of Education after accrediting for-profit schools claims in a federal complaint that political pressure is to blame.

Under fire in recent years for accrediting now-shuttered schools like ITT, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools learned this past September that the Department of Education denied its petition to continue receiving recognition from the federal government.

Filing suit on Dec. 15, the council says the Department of Education “consistently ignored the facts” and allowed politics to infect how it evaluated the council’s petition.

This included ignoring efforts that the council took to better comply with federal regulations and allowing the undersecretary of education to make a statement critical of it before a hearing on the company’s petition.

A report from Sen. Elizabeth Warren blasting the council also wormed its way into a procedure intended to be apolitical, according to the complaint.

In a press conference announcing the scathing report, Warren called on the panel that would hear the council’s petition to reject it.

“Subsequent to the filing of ACICS’s petition, the Department of Education embarked on a moths’ long process where it consistently ignored the facts, failed to follow the relevant regulatory criteria for reviewing that petition, employed improper procedures relating to consideration of ACICS’s petition and allowed the process to be unfairly politicized to ACICS’s detriment,” the 28-page complaint states, abbreviating the council’s name.

The council filed its complaint in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, noting that it was required to submit periodic petitions to the Department of Education to continue in the schools-accreditation business. Without accreditation by a federally recognized outfit, schools are deemed ineligible for federal student loan programs and other initiatives.

The federal government had recognized the council since 1956, but problems with the council’s petition became evident shortly after the company submitted a petition for renewal of its recognition in January. The Department of Education staff reviewing the petition asked for additional information from the company, but when the company complied, the staffers said they would not be able to include the new details in their report to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity. It is that committee that makes the recommendation to the Department of Education.

Without giving a reason, the department scheduled its hearing on the council’s petition in June, rather than on a later date as the council expected, according to the complaint.

The staffers reviewing the company’s petition also made a number of “substantive errors” in their report, the council claims. Members of the committee even noted the report was “more conclusory than it was explanatory,” according to the complaint.

For example, the Department of Education staff report cited “many investigations and lawsuits” brought against colleges the company accredited, though it only pointed to two settlements, a consent decree and a default judgment to support this point, the council says.

The staff report also “engaged in wild speculation” that the impending fall of for-profit universities would leave the council on shaky financial ground, according to the complaint.

In addition, the council claims the report “bears the hallmarks of having been subjected to the irregular and unprecedented involvement of individuals outside the Department of Education’s accreditation group.”

The panel meeting was also unusual, according to the complaint, in that Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell made an “extraordinary” statement “that could only be interpreted as an improper attempt to influence the NACIQI panel before it considered ACICS’s petition.”

A department press release notes that Mitchell delivered a welcome speech before the first day of the committee’s June meeting in which he criticized accreditors for being “asleep at the switch,” allowing for-profit universities to defraud their students.

“The comments and testimony at the NACIQI meeting – which included much improper showmanship, grandstanding and unfair or unfounded rhetoric – made clear that NACIQI members and third parties were attempting to hold ACICS accountable for conduct concerning schools that were never accredited by ACICS, but by unrelated accrediting organizations,” the complaint states.

The council says its recognition was revoked without any citations or evidence for the conclusion. The department allegedly listed 21 points where the company was out of compliance with federal regulations without saying how the company had failed to comply.

An appeal to Secretary of Education John King Jr. failed.

The council says the Department of Education’s decision harms both its business and the lives of students of universities it accredited because many licensing exams require a person’s degree to come from an accredited institution.

It asks the court for preliminary injunction, ultimately hoping the decision will be vacated.

A Department of Education spokesman declined to comment on the ongoing litigation, citing department policy. The department last week announced it has put in place new conditions to allow schools that the council once accredited to continue participating in federal student aid programs.

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