In November, following the failure of an accredited for-profit college chain that state and federal regulators had accused of mass fraud, then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave his top deputies a homework assignment: Find ways the department could reform college accreditation to prevent future debacles like the collapse of Corinthian Colleges Inc.
Duncan had called accreditors -- private groups paid by colleges to evaluate whether schools are good enough to continue receiving taxpayer money in the form of federal student loans and grants -- “watchdogs that don't bite.”
Over the last two years, federal regulators have sued for-profit chains Corinthian Colleges, ITT Educational Services Inc. and DeVry Education Group, alleging they misled prospective students -- who collectively have taken on billions of dollars in federal student loans -- about their future career prospects. Despite the allegations, the companies’ schools maintained accreditation.
And there's no fix in sight. Duncan’s former deputies’ Jan. 20 response, disclosed Thursday, largely amounts to a request for more time and a promise to shuffle more paperwork between more offices at the U.S. Department of Education.
The Education Department wields tremendous power over accreditors: Schools can receive federal student aid funds only if they’re accredited by organizations approved by the Education Department. The department can revoke its approval if accreditors aren’t up to snuff. But with less than a year left in office, it’s unlikely the Obama administration will achieve anything meaningful in reforming the accreditation system.
Instead, according to Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Education Department is “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
“This administration has been in office for seven years now. That’s enough time to figure out what’s been going on,” Nassirian said. “I’m not sure what hope there is for meaningful change.”
In their memo to Duncan’s successor, John King Jr., Education Department officials Lynn Mahaffie and James Runcie detailed the steps they’ve taken or plan in order to improve the nation’s accreditation system. They range from the obvious (more regular meetings with accreditors, something the department has long had the authority to pursue) to the banal (publicizing information already public on the department’s website and asking accreditors to separate the information they send to the department so that enforcement actions against poor-performing colleges are more readily apparent to key Education Department officials).
Mahaffie and Runcie also said the department, over the next four months, would suggest how accreditors could tweak their campus reviews. They also said the department could toughen examinations of accreditors.
Meanwhile, the Education Department continues to funnel taxpayer money to schools facing federal lawsuits alleging they systematically defrauded students with fake job placement rates. Corinthian collapsed and declared bankruptcy. ITT and DeVry are still in business and maintain accreditation. All three have denied allegations of wrongdoing.
“Given the scale of mass fraud that has been and continues to be perpetuated, these kinds of minor improvements are really inadequate,” Nassirian said. “There is just way too much money at stake and way too many students being victimized. We need far more decisive action.”
Education Undersecretary Ted Mitchell, who oversees the work of Mahaffie and Runcie, declined an interview request through a department spokeswoman, Dorie Nolt. In a blog post Thursday, Mitchell largely put the blame on accreditors and Congress.
The department’s interest in accreditation is relatively new, said Arthur Rothkopf, a member of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, or NACIQI, which advises King on accreditation issues.
Until a few months ago, Rothkopf said, the department generally left accreditation matters to NACIQI. Department officials only got involved if a college complained about its accreditor, Rothkopf said.
The Education Department never withdrew its recognition of an accreditor during Duncan’s seven years in office, department spokeswoman Denise Horn said in November.
The department’s newfound interest in accreditation matters is partly due to the fact that high-ranking officials who would’ve been focused on these issues had been preoccupied with other matters, such as the fight to end the bank-based federal student loan program and the battle to impose new rules on wasteful career and for-profit programs that saddle students with unmanageable debt loads, said Ben Miller, who helps lead higher education policy for the Center for American Progress, a Washington advocacy group with close ties to the Obama administration.
A 2008 law that prohibits the department from implementing new rules that would define “student achievement” also limited the Education Department’s ability to regulate accreditors, Miller said.
But that doesn’t explain why Obama’s education team isn’t being more aggressive in forcing accreditors to police poor-performing colleges, since the Education Department can effectively put them out of business, Nassirian said.
It also doesn’t explain why the Education Department and accreditors missed the alleged widespread fraud by giant for-profit college chains until lawsuits were filed by state attorneys general, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the Federal Trade Commission.
“What the department is trying to do is work with the community,” said Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, a group that represents colleges and recognizes 62 accreditors. “Instead of saying, ‘We’re going to take action’ and that kind of thing, the department is saying, ‘We think there needs to be more movement here so how can we work together.’”
The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, or ACICS, which oversaw a large part of Corinthian’s schools, may be the first real test of the department’s resolve, Miller said. The department last year determined that many of Corinthian’s campuses faked their job placement rates. The accreditor is up for Education Department review later this year.
Anthony Bieda, vice president of external affairs at ACICS, declined to comment, citing the upcoming review.
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