It’s not a secret that some colleges are a bad bargain for students, or that accrediting agencies, whose job it is to separate solid schools from hopeless ones, are coy about calling the latter out. Going after the worst colleges has such ugly and disruptive consequences — for students, for institutions, and for the government — that it’s just been less stressful, at least until now, to downplay the problem and keep the federal loans flowing.
Last week, the US Department of Education staff concluded that the federal government should stop recognizing the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. Known as ACICS, the council is one of a number of private accrediting agencies that are supposed to provide the higher-ed equivalent of a Good Housekeeping or Underwriters Laboratories stamp of approval — that is, an assurance by an informed outsider that a school is trustworthy enough to receive federal loans for its students.
In reality, these agencies are as indulgent as Enron-era corporate auditors or subprime mortgage-era securities raters; from 2009 to 2014, only 1 percent of schools lost their accreditation.
Traditional nonprofit colleges generally seek accreditation from a regional agency, such as the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. ACICS, a national outfit, is known for certifying for-profit institutions — and for unusual leniency. It stood by Corinthian Colleges, a chain that foundered in 2014 amid numerous state and federal fraud investigations. Seventeen institutions accredited by ACICS, including some large chains, have been targeted by state or federal authorities for a variety of questionable practices, from falsifying job-placement rates to using exotic dancers to recruit students.
Earlier this month, Senator Elizabeth Warren's staff issued a report that declared, "ACICS has spent years cranking open the spigot to allow taxpayer funds to flow to some of the sleaziest actors in American higher education." In April, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and her counterparts in 10 states and the District of Columbia urged the federal government to cut ACICS off.
The final decision may not come for months. But if the federal government dumps ACICS, the schools that it oversees will need to find another agency to accredit them, or else lose access to federal loans — the higher-ed equivalent of the death penalty.
Making punishments stick is tough in higher ed. Last year, the schools that ACICS oversees received $4.8 billion in federal money for loans to 800,000 students on hundreds of campuses. When so much money and so many students' well-being are at stake, isn't swift action in order? In practice, the opposite occurs. Even as the Education Department moved decisively against ACICS last week, it was reassuring students that "nothing happens inevitably or immediately."
On measures such as graduation and debt-repayment rates, the institutions overseen by ACICS fare much worse as a group than those accredited by regional agencies. Yet lots of other schools are putting students in harm's way. A recent report by the centrist think tank Third Way noted that only 55 percent of students at all private nonprofit colleges in the United States graduate in six years. A high school with a graduation rate that low, the report noted, would face special interventions under federal law. Weaker public institutions struggle too.
The politics of higher ed are strange, as conservative politicians join forces with university lobbyists to thwart any action against iffy schools. But Washington can't keep spending billions on the say-so of accreditors who can't say no.