One of the most important decisions that students make about their futures is where to enroll in college. And higher education remains one of the best investments that you can make in yourself, as you pursue your passions, launch a career, and strive for fulfilling, thriving lives.
Accreditation is important to consider as you choose a college, because it signals whether a school offers a quality education. For the U.S. Department of Education, it’s more than just a signal; it’s a requirement for any college or university to receive accreditation from an agency recognized by the Department before its students can use federal financial aid (like Pell Grants and federal student loans) at the school.
Unfortunately, too many schools have maintained their accreditation status in recent years even if they have misled or defrauded students, provided students with a poor education, or closed suddenly and without appropriate supports for students. This situation is unacceptable. It’s why the Department of Education has worked over the last eight years to strengthen America’s higher education accreditation system.
As part of our regular process for reviewing accreditors, earlier this year, staff at the Department recommended that the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) should no longer receive recognition from the Department as an agency that can provide schools with that “seal of approval” tied to receiving federal aid. An independent advisory body called NACIQI agreed, and a Senior Department Official issued a decision withdrawing recognition.
Today, Secretary John B. King Jr. officially decided to cease federal recognition of ACICS as an accrediting agency.
There were a lot of red flags with how ACICS was doing business as a quality assurance agency, and it did not seem likely that the agency could possibly fix them all in a reasonable amount of time. Some of those areas include problems ensuring the accuracy of data ACICS-accredited institutions provided to the accrediting agency; uneven ACICS monitoring of schools and enforcement of quality standards; and difficulties meeting the accrediting agency’s federal financial aid responsibilities under the Higher Education Act, including instances of concealing critical information from the Department. Not terminating ACICS’s federal recognition would be to sanction egregious behaviors that put students and taxpayers in harm’s way.
What does this mean for me?
This decision does not immediately affect you or your school, nor do our findings against the accreditor mean that your school is no good. For most institutions, there will be at least 18 months before federal student aid at the school is at risk. By law, schools can have up to 18 months of continued eligibility for federal aid, so that they can find another accreditor. That means some students—like those who are near the end of their program or who are preparing to transfer to another college or university—probably will not see their program of study interrupted. Students can expect to receive a notice from their school within 120 days—four months—if the institution doesn’t have an accepted application in with another accreditor by then.
For students who want to transfer anyway, or whose school closes instead of finding another accreditor, the Department will work closely with institutions and states to identify the options for students. When a school closes, those who were unable to complete but who were enrolled when the school closed (or withdrew within the four months prior to closure) can either transfer their credits or get their loans discharged. Schools are required to start setting up plans for how their programs will be taught out in the event of closure right away, and if they’re still off track closer to the 18-month deadline, they’ll have to start formalizing those agreements with other institutions. You can expect to receive information about that from the school further down the line.
Will my school remain open the full 18 months?
Please know that no matter what happens your school is required to stay in touch with you. A school could decide to close (or stop accepting federal financial aid), rather than find a new accreditor. Also, if an institution is particularly high-risk, the Department will apply some additional conditions to ensure students are protected; a school might decide to close or stop taking federal financial aid rather than comply with those requirements. If either of those happens, your school will provide you with more information as soon as it makes the decision to close; and the Department will do everything we can to provide more information about your options.
Additionally, some states might have different rules as they do for licensure, for example. Your school is required to disclose to students if they might be affected by a licensure issue, so look for more information. If the school loses its license to operate from the state, it will likely close, so watch for more information from your school.
The Department takes seriously its responsibility to make sure accreditors are meeting the standards laid out for them in law, as well as our duty to protect students and taxpayers. We are committed to ensuring those accrediting agencies that present the biggest risks to students and taxpayers receive the most rigorous reviews possible, while continuing to enforce statutory and regulatory requirements for recognized accrediting agencies. For more information about today’s ACICS decision, please read this piece on the Department’s official blog and visit www.ed.gov/acics.