WASHINGTON — A vote by an advisory panel to the Education Department could set the nation's largest accreditor of for-profit colleges firmly on a path to closing its doors, potentially leaving hundreds of thousands of students at risk of losing access to federal financial aid.
The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, a group that oversees about 900 campuses, is under scrutiny for lax oversight of its schools. If the council is stripped of its federal recognition, those schools could lose their ability to participate in federal financial aid programs, such as student loans and Pell Grants.
The council's schools received $4.7 billion in federal aid last year for its students.
At a meeting Thursday, an independent advisory committee to the Education Department will make a recommendation on whether to continue to recognize the council as an accrediting agency.
Last week, a staff recommendation from the department proposed withdrawing recognition of the council. "Its monitoring regime appears insufficient to deter widespread misconduct regarding placement, recruiting and admissions," the report said.
The council had allowed Corinthian Colleges, one of the largest chains of for-profit colleges, to continue to receive accreditation even as it was being investigated for fraud. Corinthian sold many of its campuses, closed others, and filed for bankruptcy protection last year.
Education Undersecretary Ted Mitchell says many accrediting agencies are working hard to evaluate the quality of colleges. But some are not, he said in prepared remarks to the advisory panel, called the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity.
"When we see schools provide extremely poor outcomes for students — or even commit fraud — while maintaining accreditation, that is a black mark on the entire field," said Mitchell. "The unfortunate reality is that not all institutions have students' best interests at heart or are investing their resources in ways that maximize student success. Accreditors should be the failsafe in these instances."
The council has tried to take action against some of its schools, including California's Bristol University and ITT Tech, in recent months.
And on Wednesday, on the eve of the vote, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools announced the formation of a "Blue Ribbon" advisory committee to conduct an in-depth review of its standards, practices, and accreditation processes.
ACICS Council Chair Lawrence Leak said in a statement that the independent members of the committee will "recommend changes to our organization that will put students first" by focusing on student achievement, including student retention rates, and job placement.
The advisory committee will make its recommendation after hearing from more than two dozen scheduled speakers. The recommendation will be forwarded to a senior official at the Education Department, chief of staff Emma Vadehra, who will then have 90 days to review and make her decision on whether to recognize the council. The council has 30 days to appeal to Education Secretary John B. King Jr. The decision also could be challenged in court.
If the department decides to withdraw recognition of the council, then the schools it has accredited will have 18 months to find a new accreditor for its programs.
Financial aid during that time would not be affected. Some students may be able to complete their certificates or degrees in that time. However, federal aid would cease after the 18-month deadline if affected schools don't get a new seal of approval from an accreditor. Students caught up in the mess also might be able to transfer their credits to new schools.