This could be the beginning of the end for the organization that accredited the now bankrupt for-profit Corinthian Colleges.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education took a step toward shutting down the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools by recommending it not be renewed as an accrediting body later this summer. Founded in 1912, ACICS is one of the country's oldest and largest college accreditors.
But it recently came under fire after continuing to accredit campuses owned by Corinthian while the for-profit giant lied about graduation rates and used aggressive sales tactics to recruit students.
Corinthian collapsed two years ago, after the government investigated its practices and then froze its access to student aid money. The recommendation issued Wednesday says that ACICS failed to meet federal standards and failed to hold schools accountable.
Although it may be something we can take for granted, college accreditation by an organization like ACICS is one of the most fundamental processes in higher education; it determines which schools get federal aid dollars and which schools do not.
In this case, there's billions in taxpayer dollars at stake. Just last year, campuses approved by the organization received more than $4 billion in federal student loans and grants.
In an interview a couple of weeks ago, ACICS' top executive, Anthony Bieda, said the agency subjects its schools to a 200-page survey.
"It requires everything, including mission purpose, administrative capacity of the organization," Bieda said, ticking of a long list of requirements.
"It includes faculty qualifications, scope and sequence of the curriculum, instructional materials, facilities, student services, library resources."
But Bieda claims that there was no indication Corinthian wasn't abiding by that long list of standards, or was misleading students.
"We did not [find Corinthian was misleading students]. We were comfortable — maybe mistakenly so — but we were comfortable that most of the time, most of the data they were providing was accurate," said Bieda. "The Department had a different perspective."
Perhaps with some foresight, Bieda announced this month that his agency would stop accepting new applications for colleges seeking to become accredited, but he defended the accreditation process and his agency's role in it.
"What is the alternative?" Bieda asked. "The alternative will be mid-level, government bureaucrats going into schools and saying, 'We deem this one to be good, we deem this one to be mediocre, and we deem this one to be bad.' "
In the case of Corinthian, Bieda admitted that the review could have been "more rigorous," or "more frequent."
"But at the end of the day, it's a matter of trust," he said.
A matter of trust, with billions of federal dollars on the line.
After first publishing this story we received this statement from Tony Bieda at ACICS:
"ACICS takes the Department's final staff report and recommendation very seriously. The recommendation to deny recognition is disappointing, and must be addressed directly and decisively by the Board and senior management of the agency.
ACICS took note that the Department acknowledged the steps we have taken to reform our accreditation process. ACICS is prepared to make our case as effectively as possible to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality next week."
Lydia Emmanouilidou contributed to the reporting for this story.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In order for a college or university to receive money from the federal government, it has to be accredited. The Department of Education is now recommending that one of the largest agencies that accredits colleges should lose the power to review schools and decide whether they're up to snuff. Kirk Carapezza of member station WGBH in Boston reports.
KIRK CARAPEZZA, BYLINE: That old and large college accreditor is the Accrediting Council for Independent Schools and Colleges. It accredits nearly 900 campuses, has been around since 1912 and now it's in trouble.
TED MITCHELL: This is the most forceful action that we could recommend.
CARAPEZZA: That's U.S. Education Undersecretary Ted Mitchell. He says the agency continued to accredit the for-profit giant Corinthian Colleges, even after federal officials found Corinthian was using aggressive sales tactics and lying about its graduation rates.
MITCHELL: Unfortunately, they maintained their accreditation status right up until the end.
CARAPEZZA: Corinthian's end came when education officials froze federal student aid, and the for-profit went bankrupt. But Mitchell says Corinthian's accreditor failed to hold the for-profit accountable.
MITCHELL: That has led us over the last year to really work with accreditors to make sure that the seal of approval that they're giving to institutions is meaningful to students and is protecting taxpayers' dollars.
CARAPEZZA: We're talking about billions of taxpayer dollars. College accreditation in this country turns on a spigot controlling the flow of financial student aid. In a recent interview, the accreditor's chief executive Tony Bieda told me his agency found no signs that Corinthian was misleading its students.
TONY BIEDA: We were comfortable - maybe mistakenly so - but we were comfortable that most of the time, most of the data they were providing was accurate. The department had a different perspective.
CARAPEZZA: Next week, a federal panel will hold hearings on the agency's fate, and Bieda is still confident they'll get a fair shake.
BIEDA: Because the politics will enter the room at some point. There will be activists. There will be picket signs. And then once the circus is done, then the adults in the room have to sit down and focus on the merits of the case.
CARAPEZZA: A final decision on the case is expected later this summer. If the agency loses its powers, its other campuses would have 18 months to find new accreditors or lose their federal funding. For NPR News, I'm Kirk Carapezza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.