What College Accreditation Changes Mean for Students

Editor’s note (10/25/16): On Friday, Oct. 21, ACICS  appealed the senior Department official’s decision to uphold the NACIQI and Department staff recommendations to end the agency’s federal recognition. The  appeal will be decided by the U.S. Secretary of Education; there is no deadline for the Secretary to render a decision. Until he decides, there is no change in federal student aid eligibility for ACICS-accredited institutions.

Editor’s note (9/22/16): Today, the designated senior Department official upheld the NACIQI and Department staff recommendations to end recognition of ACICS. The agency has ten calendar days to inform the Department of their intent to appeal the decision to the U.S. Secretary of Education if it wishes to do so.

Editor’s note (6/24/16): Yesterday, NACIQI – the independent board that advises the Department of Education on accreditation – voted 10-3 in support of the Department’s recommendation to end recognition of ACICS. As noted in the post below, that was the next step in the process after the initial recommendation for Department staff. The recommendations now come to a senior official here at the Department, who has 90 days to make a decision. After that, ACICS will have the opportunity to appeal the decision to the Secretary of Education if it wishes to do so.

For millions of Americans, federal student loans and grants open the doors to a college education. That critical federal aid must be used at a school that is (among other things) given the seal of approval by an “accrediting agency” or “accreditor” recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. It’s one of the safeguards in the system. Accreditation is an important signal to students, families, and the Department about whether a school offers a quality education. Accreditors have a responsibility under federal law to make sure colleges earn that seal.

But what happens when the Department stops recognizing an accrediting agency?

It’s a relatively unusual case, but it’s a relevant one today. As part of our regular process for reviewing accreditors – staff at the Department recommended that the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (or ACICS) should no longer be recognized by the Department as an agency that can provide schools with an accreditation that makes them eligible for participation in federal aid. For more information on the failures that led to that recommendation click here.

This is not the final word on ACICS – so nothing is inevitable or happens immediately – but this recommendation does kick off a process that students will want to know more about.

I’ll try to answer some of what you might be wondering today – and we’ll continue to provide more information as the process plays out.

How do I know if my school is accredited by ACICS?

Good first question. You can look it up here.

What does this mean for students at ACICS-accredited institutions?

First – don’t panic. As I said, this is just an initial recommendation. Nothing happens inevitably or immediately.

The chain of events that plays out next will take – at minimum – more than 18 months. That means that many of the students who already have started at one of these schools will be able to complete their certificates or degrees before there is a chance of anything changing.

Generally speaking, if you’re near the end of your program or you’re preparing to transfer to another college or university, this news probably won’t interrupt your program.

Maybe it would be helpful if I explain…

What happens next?

The actual decision will be made by a senior official here at the Department. That senior official will consider the staff recommendation released today along with another recommendation by an independent board called the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (or NACIQI) that advises the Department on these issues.

NACIQI meets next week to form its own recommendation.

Once the deciding official has received both recommendations, she has 90 days to review them before making a decision on whether or not to recognize the agency. After that, if ACICS disagrees with the decision, the agency has 30 days to appeal to the Secretary of Education.

What if the Department ultimately decides to end its recognition of ACICS?

If the deciding official (or the Secretary, if there’s an appeal) ultimately decides to stop recognizing ACICS, schools that it has accredited will have 18 months to get a seal of approval from a different recognized accreditor in order to stay eligible for federal student aid. That’s why I said earlier that it will take at least 18 months for this chain of events to play out before there’s any impact on your aid.

Of course, individual circumstances vary greatly. If you’re wondering whether changes in your school’s accreditation status might affect your specific plans, you should reach out to your school for individualized advice.

It’s worth noting here that licensing for some jobs – but not all – may require that your program is currently accredited by a Department-recognized accreditor. Contact your institution or the licensure board in your field to see if this is the case.

Remember, even if ACICS ultimately loses its recognition, schools will have a chance to find a different accreditor for their programs.

Okay, so it will take a while, but what if a school ultimately can’t find an accreditor?

At that point, students would no longer be able to use their federal aid at those schools. Students who want to continue their education using federal loans or grants past that point would need to transfer. Schools also need to have a plan in place to inform students about their options so students are not left scrambling.

What if I want to transfer out of my school?

That’s a decision only you can make, but we have some tools that can help if you decide to transfer. In particular, you might want to check out the College Scorecard to look into other options and see how well those schools prepare their graduates for life after college.

Again, circumstances will be unique to each student and each school, but you may be able to transfer your credits. You’ll want to check with the new school’s registrars.

I just started a program at an ACICS-accredited school. What should I do?

If you’re just getting started, you might be affected if ACICS loses its recognition, especially if your program will take longer than 18 months from the time a final decision is made.

You may want to be in touch with your school to make sure they have a solid plan to pursue accreditation with a different accreditor.

You might also want to do a little research using the College Scorecard. There, you can make sure your school has a track record of preparing its students for successful careers. You can also compare other options if you’re interested in transferring.

I already graduated from an ACICS-accredited school. Is my degree compromised?

Nobody can take away the hard work you put in or the skills you gained. Your school was accredited when you earned your degree, and you’ll never have to return your certificate or diploma.

Remember, even if ACICS ultimately loses its recognition, schools will have a chance to find a different accreditor for their programs.

Now what?

First, a reminder: Don’t freak out. Nothing is final today, so you’ve got some time. If a school’s accreditor loses its recognition, the school should be in touch immediately with students and share information about their options. And the Department will monitor to make sure that happens and regularly post updates through studentaid.gov.

Whatever you choose to do, please know this: you have a wealth of options in pursuing your education, so don’t stop. Getting a high-quality degree or credential in a field where employers are hiring is still the surest way to provide for your future economic security.

For our part, we’ll keep working to protect America’s students and support them as they work to complete their degree or credential.

NEW! (9/22/16): I’m a veteran or active duty servicemember. Will this impact my GI Bill or Tuition Assistance benefits? 

The House and Senate recently voted to approve a bill that would give VA-eligible programs the same 18-month period to find a new accreditor that the Department of Education currently allows for federal financial aid eligibility (like Pell Grants and student loans). We are working closely with our federal agency partners to ensure servicemembers and veterans have the information they need to make responsible, informed decisions about continuing their education. 

Thanks for all the info, but I still want to know more.

You got it. Here’s a more detailed set of questions and answers.

Matt Lehrich is Communications Director at the Department of Education.

7 Comments

  1. What will be the impact for international students who are currently studying in the ACICS accredited colleges ?

  2. This should have happened years ago.

    Those involved in for-profit education like to say they serve the underserved but if the underserved were truly being served, the focus would be on reasonably priced technical programs – and possibly “pre-college” courses to help those looking for a college career catch up on anything they may have missed in high school or after being out of the workforce for years.

    The reality is these schools serve the underserved by taking complete advantage of their lack of awareness about what higher education should be.

    They are many times the first ones to go to college so they don’t know that paying $96,000 for a Bachelor’s Degree is four times what they’d pay going to the community college and then transferring to a state school for their last two years.

    They don’t know understand that when they sign that disclosure saying your minimum payment is $50, it means at least $50 PER federal loan – not that you’re going to pay $50 a month for all these loans.

    They don’t understand that the private loans they are taking out to cover the rest of the insane amount of tuition ($40,000+ loans with 20% interest – because many times underserved also equals poor credit ) will be a crippling burden when the majority of students find their computer science degree gets them little more than a tech support job for less than $20 an hour.

    They don’t understand that when they get the snapshots of current incomes for prior graduates in their field, the highest earner shown is usually a graduate who already established a career they were making a good living in before arriving there. That salary was already in place and they only came to that school to get a paper saying they have a degree so they can get their next increase or promotion – they brought the salary to the school, the school didn’t bring the salary to them.

    They don’t understand that if a graduate has a job that remotely uses even one of the skills listed in the program description, the career services department will count it as a graduate working in their field. They think they are seeing data of all these graduates who went into law enforcement but they are really seeing people working loss prevention at Wal-mart for $12 an hour.

    They don’t realize that the “scholarship” they are so proud of themselves for getting, that is probably their first taste of “academic success” and something they think is an indicator their likelihood of success at the school, is something no one actually reads and everyone “wins” until the funds run out. They could have written the alphabet instead of spending an hour writing their life story, result would have been the same.

    You’re right, these schools are serving the underserved. They are serving them with debt, disappointment and lies. Lucky them.

  3. For-profit colleges in the state of Ohio are thoroughly inspected by the State Board of Career Colleges and Schools. For-profit colleges in the state of Ohio are thoroughly inspected by the Ohio Board of Regents. For-profit colleges are thoroughly inspected by the ACICS. For-profit colleges are held at a higher standard than the state owned and operated colleges. As for protecting the tax payers against “for-profit” colleges, the U.S. Department of Education employees (fellow human beings) are forgetting “for-profit” isn’t a dirty word. For-profit colleges are tax paying institutions who employee thousands of people to serve the underprivileged.

  4. Although I respect the comments and ED’s concerns, denying authorization to ACICS will harm 800,000 students actively enrolled in their schools. I highly recommend readers of this blog take the time to understand the actual CFR that governs ALL accrediting agencies. It is clear that ED overreached and applied criteria way outside the CFR. Moreover, ED failed to systematically apply these same standards to the 20 other accreditors also seeking recognition at the upcoming NACIQI meeting. If all accreditors were held to the same account as ACICS they would all fail.

  5. “ACICS has accredited 243 for-profit colleges primarily or exclusively. In addition to Corinthian, ACICS also accredits the for-profit chain ITT, which is still being investigated by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for its questionable private loan practices.”
    Mr. Secretary, Why vacillate?
    Any school, but especially the for-profit post secondary schools such as those run by EDMC, in particular, who have continued to aggressively recruit despite being formerly under the gun for for 11 billion dollars by the DOJ for false claims; and this without telling the hapless students beforehand is “misrepresentation of a material fact” and “false inducement.” This activity has been well documented because it went on for years. So why in the world should these entities continue to be accredited by anyone?
    Under normal circumstances, any contract implied or express entered into under false pretenses would be deemed null and void. So the question is: how do we make these students whole? Many are minorities, single mothers with young children, those looking to reinvent themselves after the financial meltdown, and still more seeking to be the first one in their family to go to college.
    Today, despite the industry-wide opprobrium, they operate business as usual. Same old same old.
    So the answer seems clear. Your department holds the key. Without your help they don’t exist.
    Please do not entertain their not so veiled threats to shutter their schools and abscond like thieves in the night. The taxpayers and students should not have to endure this ongoing tacit and often times overt form of blackmail.
    As you know, there are many more beneficent educational options for students. Ones that nurture and support, have decent graduation and retention rates and are not about the shortest distance to student their loan money. These are the ones that deserve and need your support. So maybe a few less pearls cast before swine may be just the thing.

    • Sir you need to check your facts before declaring that EDMC is not in compliance. The information about the settlement with DOJ and DOE is fully disclosed in the enrollment agreement, catalogue and fully disclosed to every student. Every concern is addressed and no student is pressured to start. You say you want to end the process, it ends right there!
      EDMC has a DOE monitor and all new processes are vetted through that monitor. EVERY single one! EDMC now requires all students receive their financial plan review prior to even signing an enrollment agreement in a one on one discussion with a finance counselor. Not an email with no chance to discuss it like state colleges and community colleges. EDMC students are more informed about their financial aid options then any I have ever seen, including state colleges where you get an email that says fill all this out by yourself or don’t start school.
      Students are told if their remaining financial aid will get them to graduation, not just sure you are good for this year, next year we will tell you that you are out of funds and can’t graduate on what you have left. They have the option up front to go somewhere else that may be cheaper. They are told what they have left and their agg limits.
      Not all for profit school are bad, scams or don’t care about compliance. EDMC does in fact care and is complying with their DOE monitor in a sincere effort to be the best they can be and provide students with the best possible education.
      Yes diploma mills HAVE to be shut down, EDMC wants them shut down as well. They make those of us that truly care look bad. Just because a school has had issues that does not mean that they cannot improve and be the best out there for students.
      I would love to find any school or finance counselor that doesn’t prefer a student with a 0 efc and full funding that is not chosen for verification. Go ahead and try to find one in ANY school profit, non profit or state school. They DO NOT exist. Not ONE aspect of that has anything to do with praying on the poor. It is about the people who truly need and want to bring themselves and their families up the ladder of success with having to make a payment plan that forces them to decide between necessities and their education and dreams.
      You want to help low income families,, why don’t you try to regulating ridiculous tuition hikes that do nothing more than make a few people at the top richer and do not improve the education value for the student. Try doing something REAL for them for a change.

  6. With ED disbursing the lions share of funding to higher Education institutions, it only makes sense they should have significant authority on accreditation.

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