Letters to Regulators: Letter to ED Regarding ACCSC and NAIQI Procedures

View or download a PDF of the letter here.

September 20, 2021 

The Honorable Miguel Cardona, Ed.D.
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20202 

Dear Secretary Cardona,  

We submit this letter on behalf of the undersigned organizations to urge the Senior Department Official  at the U.S. Department of Education (Department) to renew recognition of the Accrediting Commission  of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC) for a term of no more than three years. 

The Department’s accreditation group found ACCSC in compliance and recommended a full five-year  renewal. During their July 2021 meeting, however, members of the Department’s National Advisory  Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) identified multiple troubling issues with the  accreditor. These concerns included:  

  • ACCSC has accredited a number of schools that barely cleared the 90/10 threshold, that saddled  students with debt, and that had poor student outcomes–as reflected in the data provided in  the accreditor dashboard. Over a quarter of ACCSC schools showed no return on investment for  their students. The majority of students at those schools earned less than the average high  school graduate within the state where their institutions were located, even 10 years after initial  enrollment.1
  • Some schools long accredited by ACCSC faced law enforcement investigations, student and  whistleblower complaints, and media scrutiny for deceptive and predatory behavior.2

After extensive deliberation, NACIQI members voted to recommend that ACCSC be recognized for three  years instead of five.  

We believe any renewal of ACCSC recognition by the Department should not extend beyond three years.  Although Department staff did not find ACCSC out of compliance with its own standards or federal  regulations, the apparent lack of rigor applied to the review–including the failure to address publicly  available information that raised concerns about ACCSC’s compliance–should be remedied. 

The Department’s recognition criteria require effective monitoring and evaluation of institutional  compliance with accrediting standards and swift enforcement when institutions are in violation of the  standards.3 The evidence presented both by the Department and public witnesses–all discussed at the  July 2021 meeting, along with public information compiled in the reports cited in footnote one–strongly  suggest that ACCSC has, in fact, failed to effectively monitor and enforce its standards. These failures  include meeting requirements regarding administrative capacity, change of ownership, fiscal  responsibility, recruitment and advertising, and student academic progress.4 ACCSC’s continued  approval of schools owned and operated by the Center for Excellence in Higher Education even through  the Department’s rejection of the schools’ conversion to non-profit status in 2016, and the presentation  of extensive evidence of fraud and deception during the trial in Colorado in 2017, offers one example of  concern.  

As such, ACCSC does not appear to meet the criteria necessary for full recognition. NACIQI’s decision to  recommend a shorter period of recognition was an important step in ensuring accreditors not only act  as gatekeepers to federal aid, but are also true stewards of quality.  

In addition to following NACIQI’s recommendation regarding ACCSC, or granting a term of recognition of  between one and three years, we recommend that the Department more clearly define NACIQI’s role as  a protector of quality and gatekeeper to federal aid. The July 2021 meeting demonstrated a lack of  agreement by NACIQI members and Department staff about what information members could properly  consider under current federal regulations and Department procedures. Members also expressed  differences about what federal regulations required in terms of timelines and procedures for review and  public input.  

To strengthen its oversight of accrediting agencies, the Department should improve its guidance and  dedicate greater resources to this review process. The Department could also consider strengthening its  accreditation regulations through the upcoming negotiated rulemaking process, or another process, to  ensure agencies are adequately measuring institutional and programmatic quality.  

Thank you for your consideration of our recommendations regarding ACCSC’s term of recognition and  steps needed to strengthen accreditation reviews generally. We welcome the opportunity to continue  this discussion of needed reforms.