The Trump Administration’s For-Profit College Problem

On December 12, 2016, then-Secretary of Education John King revoked federal recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (“ACICS”). ACICS had risen to public prominence for its accreditation of for-profit colleges and had become notorious for “a long track record of failing to hold schools accountable for wrongdoing.” Most infamous was its accreditation of Corinthian Colleges, Inc., a collection of schools described as “an example of the worst practices in the for-profit college education sector.” In the final years of its existence, Corinthian attracted intense public scrutiny and numerous lawsuits. It ultimately shut down in 2015 after it was denied further federal funding, leaving thousands of students without a clear path to completing their degrees.

Secretary King’s decision to revoke recognition was based on the finding that ACICS was out of compliance with “21 separate recognition criteria set forth in the regulations,” and that the organization would be unable to come into compliance within 12 months. As a report by the Center for American Progress concluded, “ACICS [was] incapable of acting as a sufficient assessor of college quality and . . . its repeated poor judgment [left] millions of students and billions of taxpayer dollars at risk.”

Following Secretary King’s decision, the 269 institutions of higher education that were accredited by ACICS were given 18 months to find a new source of accreditation in order to remain eligible for federal funding (including for student financial aid). While the majority of these institutions have either been accredited or are on track to be accredited by the June 12 deadline, there remain a number of schools that have either been unable to find a new path to accreditation or whose status cannot be verified.

A number of legal issues have arisen from the decertification of ACICS and the failure of numerous of the schools it had accredited, many of which have been exacerbated by the change in administrations.

Corinthian students, originally promised full relief for their federal student loans by the Obama administration, were told in late 2017 that the government would only partially forgive their loans, dependent upon their current income level. This came almost a year after the government stopped processing the applications for loan discharge; since the beginning of the Trump administration, 80,000+ applications have stagnated in the system, and now will be subjected to the new policies (if they are ever acknowledged). A class action lawsuit has been filed by former Corinthian students in the Northern California District Court in response to these developments, and attorneys general from across the country have filed a lawsuit to reverse these policy changes. Similar suits have been filed in an attempt to ensure protection for the “98.6 percent of the former students who applied for loan discharges [who] attended for-profit schools.”

In late January, Secretary Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education announced they would consider ACICS’s application to be re-recognized by the federal government and authorized to accredit institutes of higher learning. This announcement has already been the subject of legal action. On February 15, 2018, a temporary restraining order was issued by the Honorable Paul A. Crotty, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York, preventing the agency from closing its public comment period on the decision until they released the content of ACICS’s application. In his decision, Judge Crotty wrote that “by ending the comment period before . . . groups have an opportunity to review the application, the Department may very well be acting arbitrarily and capriciously.” The comment period has been extended to March 1st, and the department has begun releasing documents relevant to ACICS’s application; however, The Century Foundation (plaintiffs in the initial suit) have left open the door to further legal action should the March 1st deadline prove to be too soon to allow for adequate public comment.

On February 16th, 20 attorneys general released a letter to Secretary DeVos, arguing that a careful review of the Department of Education’s Criteria for the Recognition of Accrediting Agencies shows that “ACICS is ineligible for recognition and urg[ing] the Department to reject its application.” They further stated that:

“ACICS willingly accredited predatory schools that left students across the country mired in debt and without the quality education they were promised. Despite being aware of these schools’ misconduct, ACICS continued to accredit the institutions, in some cases up until the day the schools closed and filed for bankruptcy.”

Through their letter, the attorneys general underscore the gravity of the situation. ACICS’s disregard for basic standards in their accreditation process led to students graduating from colleges that had not fulfilled their basic obligations as institutions of higher education. The collapse of these schools has spawned numerous lawsuits in attempts to obtain basic justice for some of the tens of thousands of students who were harmed as a result. And less than two years later, the Department of Education is preparing to re-recognize them as a credible accreditor of exactly those same schools.  This about-face is yet one more sign of the government’s coziness with for-profit colleges – a relationship that comes at the expense of students nationwide.

Any discussion of the Trump administration’s relationship with for-profit colleges cannot take place without discussion of the President himself. Just two weeks after his Department of Education opened its inquiry into re-recognizing ACICS, President Trump’s own for-profit college was back in the news, as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a challenge to the $25 million settlement he had reached with students who had attended Trump University.

Civil Rights organizations have long opposed for-profit colleges on the grounds that they “engage in in predatory and sometimes outright fraudulent recruiting practices directed to underserved populations of students, including students of color, low-income students, and veterans,” while being “costly, and leav[ing] many students saddled with a lifetime of debt that all too often ends in default.” With a President who founded a for-profit college that shut down because of its predatory practices and a Department of Education that has consistently opted against protecting students, the threat to vulnerable populations of students appears to be rising.

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Molly is a first year student at Harvard Law School. She is originally from Saint Paul, Minnesota, and is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin. Her focus is on the intersection of racial justice, education, and the law. Find her on Twitter @molly_coleman.

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