Update: The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) provides recommendations regarding accrediting agencies that monitor the academic quality of postsecondary institutions and educational programs for federal purposes. NACIQI will review ACICS at its virtual meeting on March 4.
The Pressure to Boost Enrollment
Within the highly competitive market of student admissions, college and university enrollment counselors point out all the reasons why students should choose their institution. Most claims are usually truthful. But sometimes enrollment counselors bend the truth a bit, leave out important details, or just flat out lie. This is done in an effort to meet monthly enrollment quotas intended to fill classrooms (virtual or in-person). More students means increased revenue, typically through federal financial aid.
While we occasionally see this within traditional academia, the vast majority of unscrupulous enrollment practices take place in for-profit institutions that were created for one sole purpose: To make money.
Unsuspecting students, many of whom may be the first in their family to ever go to college, put their trust in these enrollment counselors. They work two and three jobs to scrape up enough money for textbooks or childcare. Often encouraged by admissions or financial aid counselors, they borrow the maximum amount they can in federal student loans. These students work hard and dream of getting a good job when they graduate so they can make a better life for themselves and their loved ones.
Far too often, we’ve seen those dreams shattered because those institutions failed to operate with integrity. Failed to tell the truth. Failed their students, and left them hanging with tens of thousands of dollars in debt with nothing to show for it.
Even more tragically, those institutions were allowed to take advantage of their students by the very ones who were supposed to make sure they were doing the right thing: Accrediting bodies.
Quality Assurance Watchdogs
Accrediting bodies were formed in the United States to serve as quality assurance watchdogs. Their role is to ensure that higher education institutions operate with integrity. For example, they should be financially stable. They should hire qualified faculty members. And, they should provide high-quality programs that help students get a job when they graduate. One such accrediting body is the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS).
Founded in 1912, ACICS was first recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) back in 1956. It’s authorized to accredit private postsecondary institutions that offer certificates or diplomas. In addition, ACICS reviews 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.
Where ACICS Operates
ACICS has a worldwide presence. In addition to operating across the United States, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Island, the organization also accredits institutions in Antigua and Barbuda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Peru, Spain, and Taiwan.
Profile of Institutions and Programs Accredited by ACICS
Currently, the body has an active membership of 85 institutions, with 80% of them being run by for-profit corporations. Several are operated by the same company but are accredited separately as different branches or campuses.
Right now, ACICS has its stamp of approval on a total of 623 programs across the 85 institutions it has accredited. For those who complete those programs, we see the following breakdown:
Number of Programs Accredited by ACICS
|Certificate of Completion or Diploma||
|Occupational Associate’s Degree||
|Academic Associate’s Degree||
As part of its program review protocol, ACICS takes a close look at multiple metrics. When a program or institution doesn’t meet benchmark standards, it receives the equivalent of a warning. Subsequently, they are given a specified time to make the necessary improvements. In more serious instances, the organization sends institutions a formal Compliance Warning or Show Cause letter.
A Compliance Warning action is taken when the Council determines that an institution or campus is not in compliance with the Accreditation Criteria but is able to bring itself into compliance within the time frame specified by the Council. In 2020, ACICS issued Compliance Warnings to eight institutions. It’s already issued one Warning this year.
Most of the reasons focus on Student Achievement or Quality Assurance. Frequently, warnings were issued for incomplete data. In some cases, institutions provided incomplete faculty information about qualifications. In other cases, there are low graduation rates or low employment placement rates after program completion. The ACICS benchmark for student retention and employment placement post-graduation is 60%. In some cases, placement rates are 54%, 17%, and even 0%. As a result, many students are finding it extremely difficult to get a job once they graduate.
Show Cause Letters
ACICS sent Show Cause letters to five of its member institutions in 2020. A Show Cause letter formally lets institutional administrators know that the institution is very close to having their accreditation withdrawn; they are instructed to provide evidence or “show cause” as to why the institution should be allowed to continue its operations. Four of the five Show Cause letters focused on student achievement. In each case, student retention rates and employment placement rates were abysmal.
The last Show Cause letter revealed that ACICS had learned the institution had launched a Doctor of Business Administration program without receiving prior approval. Even worse, the program had already enrolled 23 students. If allowed to continue, those graduates would likely find a difficult time advancing their career with a doctorate from an unaccredited program. Or, if chose to transfer to another institution, it’s almost a guarantee that none of the courses completed from an unaccredited program would be accepted for transfer.
Often Too Little Oversight, Too Late
As I wrote in The Dominoes That Didn’t Have to Fall: Vatterott College, the ECA, and Others Like Them in early 2019, ACICS has become the go-to accrediting body for institutions that want a seal of approval quickly. Most are for-profits. Many don’t want to do the work to go through a rigorous program review process. They know that they need to be accredited in order to boost enrollment and in many cases, receive federal student financial aid. Word travels quickly through a network of unscrupulous investors which accrediting bodies are the easiest way to get from A to B.
In 2018, 37 ACICS-accredited institutions shut their doors. By 2019, it was 13 and in 2020, the number was four. Each of those now-defunct for-profit institutions operated multiple programs of study, with each having multiple students enrolled. The amount of money in federal financial aid sent to those institutions is staggering. Even worse, just think of how many thousands of students and their families have been devastated because ACICS failed to do their job as an accrediting body.
It’s Time to Finally Pull the Plug on ACICS
It’s past time for the US Department of Education to pull the plug on ACICS. Given their track record over many years, it’s obvious the organization simply isn’t up to the task of ensuring program quality. Above all else, accrediting bodies are in place to protect students from unscrupulous companies that don’t think twice about taking their money. Those predatory for-profits lead students on and then send them on their way with a certificate or degree that often isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Or, they shutter their doors without notice, leaving unsuspecting students in a lurch with no idea what to do next.
President Obama made the decision to derecognize and strip ACICS of its power back in 2016. At that time, the organization was the gatekeeper to $4.76 billion in 2015 federal aid payments to more than 245 career-oriented colleges.
However, Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration refused to do the right thing by students. Instead, they chose to reinstate ACICS as a recognized accrediting body. As a result, ACICS continued to approve programs that couldn’t be accredited by another body. In one case, reporters discovered that one institution given the ACICS stamp of approval in 2017 wasn’t even actually a functioning university. In another case, there weren’t actually any faculty on staff.
Nonetheless, it’s now up to the Biden administration to clean up the mess, once and for all. In a recent staff report, senior US Department of Education officials recommended terminating ACICS’ recognition as an accrediting body. Based on solicited third-party comments, those who care about higher education quality are elated.
The Department of Education should shut down ACICS for good. In addition, it should take steps that ensure that this type of incompetence never happens again.
About the Author: Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher has expertise in higher education quality assurance, educator preparation, and competency-based education. A former public school teacher and college administrator, Roberta is now an educational consultant specializing in the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP).