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EDITORIAL

In higher education, it’s time to watch the watchdogs

For-profit education company Corinthian Colleges Inc. closed colleges operating under the Everest name in 11 different states.
For-profit education company Corinthian Colleges Inc. closed colleges operating under the Everest name in 11 different states. (JOSE LUIS MAGANA/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

For too long, nobody in higher education has been watching the watchdogs. That’s starting to change, thanks in part to Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has applied pressure to decertify one of the shadiest accrediting bodies, whose approvals allowed exploitative for-profit colleges to grab federal aid dollars and exacerbated the nation’s student-debt crisis.

Revoking the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools would be a good step, considering the agency’s track record of turning a blind eye to scam schools. In recommending its termination, a Department of Education report found numerous problems, including incomplete training and conflict-of-interest policies. The greater benefit, though, would be the message it sends to the higher-education world more broadly. If axing ACICS sends a message to all accreditors that they need to be more demanding, the impact could be much bigger than a single organization.

ACICS has come under national attention because it continued to give its seal of approval to for-profit Corinthian Colleges, even while the school was under investigation in many states. The Massachusetts attorney general, Maura Healey, said that ACICS “enabled predatory for-profit schools to defraud students and taxpayers.”

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Accreditation is vital for colleges and universities, because they can’t collect federal student aid without it. Schools accredited by ACICS, for instance, received $5 billion from US taxpayers. The government relies on accreditors to act as gatekeepers, weeding out schools that don’t meet standards.

In too many cases, the students who enrolled at Corinthian and other for-profit schools ended up with staggering debt and little to show for it. Schools consistently misled students about the career prospects they could expect with their degree — that is, if they graduated at all. One of the most damaging criticisms of ACICS was that it failed to verify the placement statistics of students after graduation. If it had, the agency might have unmasked the scam.

As bad as some for-profit schools have been for students, though, they are not the sole culprit in the nation’s growing student-debt crisis. Conventional nonprofit colleges and universities have also loaded students with debt. And they’ve resisted the Obama administration’s efforts to develop a clearer “sticker price” so students can clearly understand what they’re signing up for.

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There may be no silver bullet to solve the debt crisis, but accreditors clearly need to be part of the solution. If the Department of Education follows through on recommendations to decertify ACICS, it would be a welcome warning that watchdogs are expected to bark.