The Obama Administration Makes Its Biggest Move Against For-Profit Colleges

The nation’s worst college accreditor is about lose its own accreditation.

With Donald Trump and Brexit wiping out all other stories, here’s one you’re likely to have missed—and it’s actually good news! Yesterday, in a surprisingly bold move, federal regulators voted to recommend shutting down the nation’s largest accreditor of for-profit colleges.

The 10-3 decision, handed down Thursday by the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity[NACIQI], effectively eliminates access to federal financial aid to hundreds of schools accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools[ACICS]that enroll nearly 800,000 students.

Accreditors are nonprofits that are supposed to act as the watchdogs of higher education. They determine, among other things, which colleges are fit to receive federal student grants and loans. Some accreditors are tougher graders than others, however. ACICS is infamous in ed policy circles for being “the ‘rocks for jocks’ of accreditors,” Ben Miller of the Center for American Progress told me in a phone interview this morning. Now NACIQI, which is in essence the watchdog of the watchdogs, is recommending ACICS be euthanized.

It’s not hard to see why. ACICS was the accreditor for Corinthian Colleges, the for-profit behemoth that went bankrupt two years ago after the Department of Education found it was falsifying job placement rates and misleading students about financial aid obligations and cut off its federal funds—an action that was the domino-like result of a Washington Monthly investigation. ACICS also gave its blessings to FastTrain, a Miami-based for-profit college chain whose owner was convicted last fall on multiple counts of theft of government property. FastTrain ex-employees testified that the college forged high school diplomas for prospective students who lacked the real thing and boosted enrollment “by hiring former strippers as recruiter, some of whom wore “short skirts and stiletto heels” to work.”

Last year, ACICS’s then-president faced a withering interrogation by Sen. Elizabeth Warren. But instead of admitting the organization’s gross dereliction of duty, he inexplicably defended the group’s quality control processes. To Elizabeth Warren.

That president got the heave-ho, but the new guy and his team weren’t able to convince the NACIQI board-members that ACICS has changed its ways. Over the next 90 days, the Department of Education will review NACIQI’s recommendations, consider any appeals ACICS or others may offer, and render a decision. But the likelihood is that ACICS is toast. Colleges accredited by ACICS will have 18 months to find a new accreditor or lose access to federal funds. Students at schools that fail to be reaccredited will have to transfer to other schools and will have several ways to get their debt discharged. Some, however, will likely be left high and dry, with a lot of debt and no degree. If justice is to be full done, those students need to be made whole.

This move by NACIQI is more evidence that the Obama administration, in its final months, aims to use its power to the fullest. It’s also testimony to the power of crusading wonkery. More than anyone else, CAP’s Ben Miller kept the pressure on ACICS with one brutal report after another exposing the group’s ineptitude. He deserves a portion of the credit for what went down yesterday. And the Washington Monthly can take a bit of credit for Ben. Back when he was at New America he produced some killer precursor pieces for the Washington Monthly, including his widely read 2014 article America’s Worst Colleges and his equally groundbreaking 2010 investigation College Dropout Factories.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.