Government severs ties with for-profit colleges accreditor

Hundreds of for-profit colleges could close, leaving up to 600,000 students including 5,000 in Georgia scrambling to find other schools, after the Education Department withdrew recognition of the nation’s largest accreditor of for-profit schools.

But the U.S. Department of Education is telling students not to panic.

The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools said it would appeal Thursday’s decision to Education Secretary John B. King Jr.

If ACICS’ ability to accredit is withdrawn, the schools it accredited will have 18 months to become accredited by other agencies.

In a statement, ACICS Interim President Roger Williams said the council would “continue diligent efforts to renew and strengthen its policies and practices” to meet the department’s criteria for accreditors.

The accrediting agency has been accused of lax oversight of its schools, which included those once owned by the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges Inc. and the recently shuttered ITT Technical Institute.

The department’s decision was announced in a blog post on its website.

In a letter to the council released later Thursday, Emma Vadehra, King’s chief of staff, wrote that “ACICS’ track record does not inspire confidence that it can address all of the problems effectively.”

Vadehra said the department found fundamental problems with the council’s work as an accreditor. Her decision followed staff and advisory panel recommendations to sever ties with the council.

If ACICS loses its appeal, hundreds of schools would be forced to find a new accreditor within 18 months or be excluded from federal financial-aid programs such as student loans and Pell Grants. About 600,000 students attend ACICS-accredited institutions, Williams said.

While the appeal is pending, ACICS retains its federal recognition and remains determined to fully execute its accreditation responsibilities in a professional manner, he said.

In Georgia, six schools, some with multiple campuses, are accredited by ACICS. They enroll about 5,000 students.

Two other Georgia schools accredited by ACICS — Brown Mackie College and Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts — had announced their plans to close months before Thursday’s decision. The Georgia Nonpublic Postsecondary Education Commission is not aware of any other ACICS-accredited schools that plan to close, Executive Director Corinna Robinson said in a written statement.

Some of the largest Georgia schools accredited by ACICS said they are preparing for the possibility of ACICS’ loss of recognition.

“We are, of course, exploring all of our options with other, potential accrediting organizations. We will be ready for any change and will plan for a seamless transition in order to protect our students and their career plans,” Chuck Vella, a spokesman for Miller-Motte Technical College, which has three colleges in Georgia, said in a written statement.

Virginia College, which has four schools in Georgia, plans to seek accreditation elsewhere if ACICS ultimately loses its appeal, said Diane Worthington, a spokeswoman for Education Corporation of America, Virginia College’s parent company.

“We’re telling our students, ‘Don’t panic, focus on your studies, complete your program,’” she said.

Advocacy groups, lawmakers and others have long complained about the council. It has been accused of continuing to accredit schools under investigation over falsifying job-placement rates and claims for federal aid, illegal recruiting practices and misleading marketing.

The council allowed Corinthian Colleges, one of the largest for-profit chains, to keep accreditation while it was under investigation for fraud. Corinthian sold many of its campuses, closed others and filed for bankruptcy protection last year. Thousands of its former students are asking the Education Department to forgive their federal loans, in a taxpayer bailout that could top $3 billion.

ITT Technical Institute announced this month it was shutting down all 130 of its campuses in more than 30 states. The chain was banned in late August from enrolling new students who used federal financial aid because Education Department officials said the company had become a risk to students and taxpayers.

Associated Press writer Collin Binkley in Boston contributed to this report.

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