Accrediting the bottom of the bottom of the barrel

Accrediting the bottom of the bottom of the barrel
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One of the few consumer protection guardrails we have in our higher education system is the accreditation process. But over the last decade, one accrediting agency known as the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) broke the public’s trust repeatedly and gave its stamp of approval to no less than 17 institutions that ended up under federal or state investigation, including the now-shuttered ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian Colleges.

In addition to providing accreditation, and thereby opening up the spigot of federal dollars to institutions that engaged in fraudulent practices, the institutions it oversaw also produced the worst student outcomes of any accrediting agency in the United States.

That’s why, during my time at the Department of Education, the Obama administration revoked ACICS’s recognition as an approved accreditor in December 2016 — a bold step to prevent other students from attending institutions that were likely to make them worse off than if they had never attended in the first place. Yet when a court ruled last month that the Department of Education had failed to consider all “relevant evidence” when making its final determination to terminate the accreditor, current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosEducation Department changing eligibility for hundreds of rural school districts receiving aid: report Education department launches probe of accredited university that apparently has no faculty, students The Hill's Campaign Report: Sanders top target at CPAC MORE wasted no time reinstating ACICS as an approved accreditor while she reconsiders the agency’s appeal.

Since 2016, however, most ACICS institutions have attempted to find another accreditor under the assumption that its termination would be permanent. A recent Center for American Progress analysis shows that out of the 245 institutions that ACICS oversaw in 2016, its numbers had dwindled to 168 institutions by February 2018. Using the Department of Education’s own Performance by Accreditor Database of student outcomes, we found that the institutions that continue to linger within ACICS’s portfolio represent the bottom of the bottom of the barrel — meaning that ACICS now poses an even greater threat to students and taxpayers than before it was terminated.

Presumably because those institutions with better outcomes were able to find another accreditor, the leftovers are some of the worst of the worst. Comparing the 168 institutions still under ACICS’s watch as of February 2018 with the original 245 institutions the agency oversaw in 2016, ACICS schools now leave an even higher proportion of their students unable to earn a modest living than before the agency lost recognition. In fact, based on my analysis, only 35 percent of students receiving federal aid at current ACICS institutions were able to earn more than the average high school graduate ($25,000) within six years of when they enrolled — a six point drop from its dismal numbers in 2016.

The loan repayment rates are even more sobering. In 2016, just 39 percent of students at ACICS-approved institutions were able to pay down at least $1 on their federal loans within three years of entering repayment. Now, these students show a loan repayment of only 24 percent, meaning that more than three-in-four former students owe more on their loans three years out than the amount they originally borrowed.

Not only do the institutions within the ACICS portfolio show worse outcomes than before, they also show a smaller likelihood of success when compared to other accredited institutions. In fact, 56 percent of all federally-aided students at non-ACICS institutions are able to earn more than $25,000 six years after enrollment — a full 21 points higher than ACICS students. And non-ACICS students showed a loan repayment of 46 percent, 22 points better than those who attended ACICS schools.

ACICS institutions also fare worse than other institutions that predominantly award certificates or associate’s degrees — the type of institutions that make up 92 percent of ACICS’s current portfolio. In comparison to students who attended these similar institutions, ACICS students are 12 percentage points less likely to earn more than a high school graduate and 11 percentage points less likely to begin paying down their loans.

It’s unclear exactly what further evidence Secretary DeVos needs to see to know that the institutions under ACICS’s purview continue to pose a risk to taxpayers — and the students they enroll. Most of their better-performing institutions have already found another accreditor. And the ones remaining under its watch are getting even worse outcomes than before its termination.

With accreditation serving as a gateway for such a massive federal investment, it’s important that the secretary of Education only approves accreditors that have a proven track record of ensuring their institutions serve students well. ACICS has not demonstrated that ability in the past, and it now seems even less likely that they will be able to do so in the future. Bottom line: ACICS should go. It is incapable of fulfilling the role of ensuring educational quality.

Michael Itzkowitz is a senior fellow for higher education at Third Way, a centrist think tank. He is also the former director of the College Scorecard at the U.S. Department of Education, serving in that role from 2015 to 2016.