U.S.Department of Education Staff Report

to the

Senior Department Official on Recognition Compliance Issues

Recommendation Page

  1. Agency: Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools ( 1956 / 2018)
    (The dates provided are the date of initial listing as a recognized agency and the date of the agency’s last grant of recognition.)
  2. Action Item: Petition for Continued Recognition
  3. Current Scope of Recognition: The accreditation of private postsecondary institutions offering certificates or diplomas, and postsecondary institutions offering associate, bachelor’s, or master's degrees in programs designed to educate students for professional, technical, or occupational careers, including those that offer those programs via distance education.
  4. Requested Scope of Recognition: Same as above.
  5. Date of Advisory Committee Meeting: 06/23/2016
  6. Staff Recommendation: Deny the agency’s petition for renewal of recognition, and withdraw the agency’s recognition”.

    The staff recommendation represents one step in the overall process of reviewing an agency’s recognition. NACIQI will make its own independent recommendation, and both staff and NACIQI recommendations will be provided for the Senior Department Official for the actual decision. The staff recommendation is to withdraw recognition, which would mean the agency could not remedy its compliance issues. However, in order to provide guidance to NACIQI or the SDO – and ultimately the agency itself – about what the agency would need to do if the SDO were to decide to let it seek to come into compliance, this staff report describes the actions the agency would need to take to correct the issues cited.

  7. Issues or Problems: It does not appear that the agency meets the following sections of the Secretary’s Criteria for Recognition. These issues are summarized below and discussed in detail under the Summary of Findings section.

    -- The agency still needs to address how well graduates of its institutions succeed on those licensing exams that are required for employment, especially by using data specific to each licensing exam. In addition, the agency still needs to provide documentation of continued positive relationships with state licensing-related entities and nurse accrediting agencies, especially by providing current documents.
    [§602.13]

    -- The agency’s response did not demonstrate that ACICS reserves and planning can weather highly-probable long-term decreases in budgeted revenue. The agency needs to submit its FY 2015-2016 audit when it becomes available in October 2016. In addition, the agency needs to submit its FY 2016-2017 budget at that time as well.

    [§602.15(a)(1)]

    -- The agency needs to document how its revised training program for all volunteers provides more focus on consistently recognizing problems and questionable practices at institutions, particularly concerning student achievement. In addition, the agency needs to document that each volunteer has undergone the improved training process before being permitted to fulfill the tasks assigned to them. Furthermore, the agency needs to document the membership and activities of its new Ethics Review Board. It needs to document the integrity and sufficiency of its data verification regime, both in design and implementation. [§602.15(a)(2)]

    -- The agency needs to clarify and document its entire process for the recruitment, selection, and verification of the qualifications and experience possessed by those selected to serve on the agency’s evaluation teams and decision-making bodies. [§602.15(a)(3)]

    -- The agency needs to ensure that the conflict of interest attestation forms required of appeal board members are clearly understood, and consistently interpreted, by those required to sign them. [§602.15(a)(5)]

    -- The agency still needs to provide clear documentation of its consistent past practices to ensure that members of the Intermediate Review Committee (IRC) were free from conflicts of interest. [§602.15(a)(6)]

    -- The agency must effectively demonstrate that it has resolved issues of widespread placement rate falsification. The agency must explain its delay in implementing verification it promised to begin performing in 2011. The agency must specifically explain what actions it took with respect to each pending or settled State or federal lawsuit initiated for the benefit of students against ACICS-accredited institutions in the last 5 years to demonstrate that its actions were appropriate and effective. The agency must also demonstrate that it took follow up action on evidence it had that placement rate data submitted by institutions was unreliable. The agency must also provide current documentation policies/practices to address the non-compliant issues. [§602.16(a)(1)(i)]

    -- The agency needs to fully implement its plans to more consistently review and identify at-risk institutions. In addition, the agency needs to develop and implement its strengthened expectations for visiting teams to more consistently uncover institutional fiscal and administrative problems while on-site. [§602.16(a)(1)(v)]

    -- The agency needs to fully implement its new and strengthened initiatives regarding misrepresentations to prospective students and abusive recruiting. In addition, the agency needs to regularly verify that each institution’s recruitment process is complying with the new ACICS requirements. [§602.16(a)(1)(vii)]

    -- The agency needs to continue implementing its strengthened process for obtaining and evaluating the record of student complaints for each institution. In addition, the agency needs to compile evidence that its strengthened process is effective in practice. [§602.16(a)(1)(ix)]

    -- The agency does not meet the requirements of this section of the criteria. The Department cannot see how the agency could apply these revisions in such a way as to document effectiveness in monitoring in the time it would be given to respond in a compliance report, particularly in view of its weak record in monitoring and failure to document enforcement, and prior lack of cooperation with the Department. [§602.16(a)(1)(x)]

    -- The agency does not meet the requirements of this section. The agency must clarify its policies and procedures relative to its new data integrity standards and new team reviewer. The agency must also demonstrate that it has applied these standards. (For example, in a site visit report) [§602.17(a)]

    -- The agency needs to provide evidence that its regular on-site visit process currently and consistently obtains sufficient information to determine if the institution complies with ACICS standards. [§602.17(c)]

    -- The agency must have a reasonable basis for determining that the information it relies on for making accrediting decisions is accurate. The agency must clarify how the agency holds institutions accountable for ensuring integrity in their data submissions and explain their verification processes. The agency must provide documentation demonstrating that they have applied their standards (such as an onsite visit report). [§602.18(d)]

    -- The agency does not meet the requirements of this section of the criteria. The agency must demonstrate that it could apply revision in such a way as to document effectiveness in monitoring in the time it would be given to respond in a compliance report, particularly in view of its weak record in monitoring and failure to document enforcement. Also, the agency must demonstrate that it provided the appropriate information and documentation of the use of all monitoring mechanisms included in the agency’s narrative as requested in the staff draft analysis.

    [§602.19(b)]

    -- The agency’s response to the documentation requests regarding enforcement of timelines was insufficient. In addition, the agency’s proposed language revisions are insufficient and have not been finalized and implemented, and the agency has been ineffective in past efforts to bring itself into compliance. As a result, the agency cannot be found in compliance with the requirements of this section. [§602.20(a)]

    -- The agency’s proposed policy language regarding good cause extensions does not include a maximum time period, as requested. In addition, the agency did not provide the requested documentation demonstrating ACICS took immediate adverse action when an institution did not bring itself into compliance within the specified time period. As a result, the agency cannot be found in compliance with the requirements of this section. [§602.20(b)]

    -- The agency must provide additional documentation to demonstrate that it has a systematic reoccurring process to identify issues occurring at problematic institutions outside of its normal standards review process as noted in the draft analysis. The agency must also provide a completed CEP and evidence of a standards revision as a result of its review of a CEP. [§602.21(a)(b)]

    -- The agency continues to be out of compliance with this criterion. The agency needs to develop a written policy that would enable it to consistently determine whether a new comprehensive evaluation is required.
    [§602.22(a)(3)]

    -- The agency does not meet the requirements of this section. The agency needs to revise its teach out plan policies to include the requirements of this section of the criteria. [§602.24(c)(1)]

    -- The agency does not meet the criteria in this section. The agency's Accreditation Criteria provided fail to comply with the requirements of this section and as a response for this item are not effective until July 1, 2016. The agency has not complied with this section in practice and has provided no basis for concluding it will do so in the future. It is unclear to Department staff how the agency has held its institutions accountable for fraud and abuse prior to this or how it will following the effective date (July 1, 2016) of the new standards. [§602.27(a)(6-7),(b)]

Executive Summary

PART I: GENERAL INFORMATION ABOUT THE AGENCY

The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) is a national institutional accreditor that was founded in 1912. The agency currently accredits approximately 900 campuses (245 main and 674 additional locations) in 47 states and Puerto Rico. The agency’s recognition enables its institutions to establish eligibility to receive Federal student assistance funding under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (Title IV). The agency serves as the Title IV gatekeeper for the vast majority of the institutions it accredits. Consequently, the agency must meet the Secretary’s separate and independent requirements.


Recognition History

The Secretary of Education first recognized ACICS in 1956 under the agency’s former name, the Accrediting Commission for Business Schools. Since that time, the Secretary periodically reviewed the agency and granted it continued recognition. In 1985, ACICS requested an expansion of scope to include the accreditation of master's degree programs. That request was subsequently granted by the Secretary. In 2006, ACICS requested an expansion of scope to accredit institutions that offer programs via distance education. That request was also subsequently granted by the Secretary.

The last full review of ACICS took place at the June 2011 meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI). After that review the Department continued the current recognition of the agency, and required a compliance report in 12 months on the issues identified in the staff report. As a result of the agency’s review at the June 2013 NACIQI meeting, the compliance report was accepted and the agency’s recognition was renewed for the remaining period of three years.

In conjunction with the current review, Department staff reviewed the agency’s narrative and supporting documentation and conducted an observation of the agency’s decision meeting held in Washington, DC in April 2016. Since the agency’s last review, the Department had received three written complaints from students. After reviewing those complaints, it was found that ACICS had not violated its own written policies or the requirements of the Secretary’s Criteria for Recognition.

In connection with the agency’s current petition for continued recognition, however, the Department received approximately 40 written third-party comments. Since those comments have raised serious concerns regarding the accrediting activities of ACICS, they have been used to identify several of the issues listed in the “Issues or Problem” section of this analysis.


PART II: SUMMARY OF FINDINGS

The agency meets the requirements of the Secretary's Criteria for Recognition.

PART III: THIRD PARTY COMMENTS

Staff Analysis of 3rd Party Written Comments

Approximately 40 written third-party comments were received regarding this agency. The comments reflected negative views regarding the agency. Most of the comments are on behalf of individuals, but there were 4 comments on behalf of organizations or State entities. Most of the commenters did not tie their areas of alleged noncompliance to specific sections of the Secretary’s Criteria for Recognition.

The vast majority of comments submitted to the Department were associated with a group called the Debt Collective. In these 33 comments submitted by students, the overwhelming information provided is that the institution in which they attended misrepresented various aspects of the program to the students. In a number of cases, students expressed discontent with the quality of the instruction they received in terms of both faculty qualifications and curriculum, with the large costs associated with the program, and in regards to the processes used and information provided as they were recruited and/or admitted to the program.

As these comments appear to be complaints about specific institutions, the Department does not typically commence a review of an agency based on individual complaints unless and until a complainant exhausts the agency’s published complaint procedures. It is not clear that all of the issues raised in the comments would indicate noncompliance with the Secretary's Criteria for Recognition by the agency. However, there are areas within this analysis where the commenters’ concerns are parallel to those of the Department. The Department has noted in this analysis that it has questions related to the agency’s review of student achievement and recruiting and admissions practices in Section 602.16(a)(1).

A group of Veterans’ Organizations raised concerns regarding the default rates of the institutions that are accredited by ACICS, about the student outcome and recruiting standards of ACICS being weaker than other accrediting agencies, and the recruitment practices at various institutions accredited by ACICS that involve misrepresentations about cost and job availability. The Department has noted in this analysis that it has questions related to the agency’s review of student achievement and recruiting and admissions practices, in Section 602.16(a)(1), and the agency’s monitoring of institutions in Section 602.19(b).

A group of consumer organizations raised concerns regarding the poor track record of student achievement by ACICS institutions, that the agency relied too much upon institutional administrators in its work and lacked sufficient representation from other constituencies, that a large number ACICS-accredited institutions are under investigation, and that ACICS fails to acknowledge any necessary improvement, but rather it actively defends the success of its current work. The Department has noted in this analysis that it has questions related to the agency’s review of student achievement in Section 602.16(a)(1)(i), the agency’s wide acceptance in Section 602.13, the agency’s monitoring of institutions in Section 602.19(b), and the agency’s enforcement actions in Section 602.20.

A group of state attorney generals raised concerns that ACICS has failed to take action when improper job placement statistics are reported by an institution, that ACICS has an inadequate job placement verification processes, that ACICS demonstrates a lack of transparency and cooperation with investigations into student outcomes, that more action was needed as a result of the Corinthian Colleges investigations, and that ACICS failed repeatedly to take action in response to public enforcement actions by state and federal law enforcement. The Department has noted in this analysis that it has questions related to the agency’s review of student achievement in Section 602.16(a)(1)(i), the agency’s wide acceptance in Section 602.13, the agency’s monitoring of institutions in Section 602.19(b), and the agency’s enforcement actions in Section 602.20.

A memo from the Center for American Progress (CAP) raises similar questions from other commenters about ACICS’s standards for student placement rates, default rates, student outcomes, and recruitment standards. The request for additional information of the agency is reflected in the agency’s review of student achievement and recruiting and admissions practices, in Section 602.16(a)(1), and the agency’s monitoring of institutions in Section 602.19(b). CAP also raises concerns about the number of the lawsuits brought against ACICS. This information cited and in need of additional information is included in this analysis in the student achievement in Section 602.16(a)(1)(i), the agency’s wide acceptance in Section 602.13, the agency’s monitoring of institutions in Section 602.19(b), and the agency’s enforcement actions in Section 602.20. Note: Due to space limitations, not every single lawsuit was able to be named individually in those sections.

Agency Response to 3rd Party Written Comments

ACICS requested members of the community, including students, graduates, employers, the work-force development community and policy makers to express their opinions regarding the agency's value to them personally and to their organizations.

Staff Analysis of Agency Reponse to 3rd Party Written Comments

In response to the third party comments, ACICS asked for their stakeholders (including students, graduates, employers, the workforce development community and policymakers) to provide background regarding the value of attending/working with an ACICS accredited institution. The agency subdivided the responses into three exhibits: letters of support (Exhibit 150), employer letters (Exhibit 150-2), and letters from students (Exhibit 150-3). The letters of support include 54 testimonies from multiple parties on the experiences they have had in/related to programs that are accredited by ACICS at 15 colleges, with 34 of the 54 comments pertaining to a single institution. A number of these letters contain identical language, suggesting that they may have been part of a letter campaign. The employer letters capture 84 signatures of individuals attesting to the quality of education that a 16th institution, ITT Technical, has provided and the benefit the employers have received as a result of their relationship with that institution. However, ACICS put ITT on show cause on April 20, 2016, with a letter demonstrating that ACICS itself had serious concerns about “the institutions’ administrative capacity, organizational integrity, financial viability, and ability to serve students in a manner that complies w/ ACICS standards.” The final exhibit includes 64 letters from ITT Technical students who attended that institution and had positive experiences.

While the information provided demonstrates support by these individuals for ACICS-accredited institutions, it does not address the concerns that the draft staff report raised. The agency did not provide a narrative response to address the specific concerns relevant to the Secretary's Criteria including those previously mentioned about student outcomes and the falsification of that information (including verification of placement data), misleading recruitment and advertising practices, questions regarding Title IV responsibilities (including those about default rates), and those concerns related to lacking faculty qualifications and curriculum standards. The agency also did not give a clear indication if the issues that were brought forth through the 3rd party comment process have been considered and/or resolved through the agency's complaint standards and processes. The narrative did not specifically respond to address any of the comments, not those from individuals, nor the comments from the 19 attorneys general, nor the comments from the groups of consumer and veteran's organizations, nor from the Center for American Progress.

While not included in this section of the petition, the agency did provide documentation of their written response to the Attorney General’s letter under section 602.19(b).