U.S.Department of Education Staff Report
Senior Department Official on Recognition Compliance Issues
The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) is an institutional accrediting agency that was founded in 1912. The agency currently accredits approximately 73 main and branch campuses across the United States and in Puerto Rico. The agency’s recognition enables its institutions to establish eligibility to receive Federal student assistance funding under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended. Consequently, the agency must meet the Secretary’s separate and independent requirements as part of the recognition review process.
The Secretary of Education first recognized ACICS in 1956 under the agency’s former name, the Accrediting Commission for Business Schools. Since that time, the Secretary periodically reviewed the agency and granted it continued recognition until Secretary John B. King Jr. denied recognition effective December 12, 2016. After a court decision remanded the recognition decision back to the Department for review of additional information and documentation, Secretary Betsy DeVos reinstated the agency's recognition on November 21, 2018, to include the submission of a compliance report and monitoring report in a year.
ACICS submitted the compliance report on December 19, 2019 (“Compliance Report”) and the monitoring report on December 20, 2019 (“Monitoring Report”). In its review of the Monitoring Report, the Department staff noted that one or more deficiencies may exist in the agency's compliance with the Secretary's Criteria for Recognition or the agency's effective application of those Criteria, and therefore processed the monitoring report in accordance with the review procedures set forth in Section 602.33.
In addition to the reviews of the Compliance Report and Monitoring Report, there are two inquiries under Section 602.33 occurring at the same time: the inquiry initiated June 19, 2019 related to the review of the financial capacity of ACICS and of two institutions (“Capacity Inquiry”) and the inquiry initiated February 24, 2020 related to the review of Reagan National University (“RNU Inquiry”). Although separate, these reviews have occurred at the same time and there is overlap in the areas of non-compliance.
The review of the Compliance Report was conducted in accordance with the procedures for submitting a compliance report, as described in Section 602.32. The Department received five third-party comments in response to a Federal Register Notice invitation for comment.
602.15 Administrative and fiscal responsibilities
(2) Competent and knowledgeable individuals, qualified by education and experience in their own right and trained by the agency on their responsibilities, as appropriate for their roles, regarding the agency's standards, policies, and procedures, to conduct its on-site evaluations, apply or establish its policies, and make its accrediting and preaccrediting decisions, including, if applicable to the agency's scope, their responsibilities regarding distance education and correspondence education;
On November 21, 2018, Secretary Betsy DeVos issued her decision on the recognition status of ACICS, which included a compliance report for two sections of the Secretary's Criteria for Recognition. This section is one of the two sections in which the agency was required to provide information and documentation for compliance purposes. Specifically, the Secretary adopted the recommendation of the senior Department official (SDO) to require the agency to provide additional evidence regarding the training of site visitors, the qualifications of a Data Integrity Reviewer, and the function of the agency's Ethics Review Board.
In response to the Secretary's decision, the agency provided information and documentation related to its competency of representatives. Regarding the training of site visitors, ACICS provided a narrative description of the training provided along with documentation of the communication of the required training and training activities. Those activities included a debrief and training for team chairs via webinar (Exhibit 2). The agency stated in the narrative that team chairs were required to complete the training prior to participation in a site visit in 2019, and that 89% (40 of 45 active team chairs) did so (Exhibit 3). However, the agency did not state the outcome of the five that did not complete the training, such as were they removed from the active team chair list, or did they eventually complete the training, or another outcome.
The training activities also included a refresher training for all site visitors via webinar (Exhibit 5), to include team chairs. There were two additional training webinars in specialized areas - educational activities and distance education - which was applicable to those site visitors qualified to serve in that role. The agency did not indicate if completion of the training was required prior to participation in a site visit, which would be a reasonable assumption. The agency provided the attendee list (Exhibit 3) and the list of site visitors utilized in teams in 2019 (Exhibit 4); however, the list of site visitors includes five that do not appear on the attendee list for the refresher training. In addition, the agency did not provide the date of the site visits nor the role(s) filled by the site visitors, so it is unclear if the site visitors completed the training requirement(s) prior to participation or for the roles assigned. Based on the comparison of team compositions included in Exhibits 6 and 8, there are two site visitors listed in the "Educational Activities" role that do not appear on the attendee list for that specialized training.
Within the narrative and the communication of the training (Exhibit 1), ACICS states that "entire webinar had to be viewed" for "the certificate of completion awarded." Based on the information and documentation provided, it does not appear that any assessment of learning from the webinar was conducted. Therefore, it is not clear that these webinars are effective in providing training to site visitors. Also see concerns raised by third-party comments, Written Comment #2 - Clare McCann con, Written Comment #4 Antoinette Flores con, and Written Comment #5 - Seventeen organizations con, concerning the competency of agency representatives, as required by this section.
Additional training is provided to site visitors at the mandatory pre-visit meeting session, which includes initial observations by site visitors from the institutional materials, and an institutional summary and new policy and procedural briefing by ACICS staff. The agency provided documentation of six pre-visit meeting sessions in 2019 via signed attestations of the site visitors, as well as the materials covered by ACICS staff at the meeting. Department staff observed a mandatory pre-visit meeting session in February 2020, which included the topics noted in the narrative and training materials (Exhibits 5 and 7).
With regards to the Data Integrity Reviewer (DIR), ACICS provided a narrative description of how the role has changed from being filled by a site visit team member to those responsibilities being included under the ACICS staff member role with the implementation of the Placement Verification Program (PVP). Based on the site visitor training materials provided (Exhibit 5, page 5), the review of retention rate data is still the purview of a site visitor, specifically the "Student Relations" role, and that the ACICS staff member reviews only the retention and placement waivers. The agency provided documentation of the DIR training provided to staff (Exhibit 7), as well as six examples of DIR sections in site visit reports (Exhibit 8). However, it is not clear how and by whom the DIR role is currently fulfilled.
For the Ethics Review Committee (ERC, formerly the Ethics Review Board), ACICS provided a narrative description of the revision to the ERC's established authority and the rationale for that change. Instead of only reviewing real or perceived conflicts of interests of ACICS directors or commissioners, the ERC will now also evaluate the ethical practices that govern ACICS. The ERC is required to meet at least annually, and is comprised of two public members, one member affiliated with an ACICS institution, and one current ACICS director, per the new policy (Exhibit 10). However, the agency did not provide documentation that the ERC members met the agency's composition requirements (i.e. two public members and one member affiliated with an ACICS institution).
The agency provided documentation of the initial meetings of the ERC in 2019 (Exhibit 11), along with the newly implemented agency Code of Ethics that was initially drafted by the ERC (Exhibit 14). The ERC plans to meet again in May 2020 to review the Code of Ethics, ACICS practices, and changes in membership. Department staff requests documentation of the scheduled 2020 meeting of the ERC, if available.
In response to the draft staff analysis, the agency provided additional information and documentation concerning its competency of representatives. Regarding the training of team chairs, the agency stated that the five team chairs included on the roster, but who did not complete the team chair training, have not participated in a site visit and have been listed as inactive. ACICS provided documentation to support those statements (Exhibit 19). Exhibit 19 also states that guidance was provided to travel staff as to which team chairs had completed the training and therefore would be eligible to serve on a site team as such. ACICS referenced supporting documentation in “Exhibit X,” but that exhibit was not provided in its response. ACICS provided additional information and documentation concerning the five site visitors who did not appear to have completed the refresher training prior to participating on a site visit. The agency stated that D. Bird was included on the list of site visitors in error; D. Gnage completed his training; G. Randall was an emergency replacement and completed her training on-site with a staff member; D. Minore completed the team chair training instead; and D. Teneyuca did not complete the training, as required. The agency provided documentation for D. Bird who did not participate in a site visit and D. Gnage who completed the training in Exhibit 20 and referenced Exhibit 3. ACICS stated that D. Minore completed the team chair training and the agency therefore asserted that the individual met the training requirement. The communication of the training initiative (Exhibit 1) stated that “[a]t a minimum, everyone must complete the General Refresher Training before serving on a team,” and did not state that team chair training would satisfy this requirement. ACICS also stated a few times in its narrative that the refresher training was mandatory for all site visitors – with no exception noted for team chairs. The agency stated that G. Randall was an emergency replacement and completed her training on-site with a staff member, but provided no documentation of that just-in-time training. ACICS also acknowledged that D. Teneyuca still has not completed the mandatory training. In regard to the two individuals, D. Teneyuca and D. Milnore, who served in the “Educational Activities” role, ACICS stated in its response that the specialized webinars for site visitors for that role were “voluntary.” However, this is contrary to the communication sent to all site visitors of the training initiative (Exhibit 1), which stated that “all evaluators in every role that they are qualified to serve in, must complete additional training in the following areas: General Evaluator Refresher Training (all); Chair Training; Student Relations; Educational Activities; Distance Education.” ACICS contends that D. Teneyuca and D. Milnore did not need to complete the training because they were “deeply knowledgeable regarding educational activities and ACICS accreditation standards.” Although this may be true, it is in violation of the training policy it described in the communication to site visitors (Exhibit 1), which requires mandatory training in the areas described, without exception to for expertise or experience. Therefore, ACICS has failed to demonstrate that it consistently trains its representatives for their roles and follows its own policies and procedures, as required by regulation. In the draft staff analysis, Department staff raised concerns about lack of an assessment of learning by ACICS from the training webinar provided. In its response, ACICS asserted that the regulation in this section only requires training to be provided but does not require ACICS to demonstrate that its training is effective, describing the draft staff analysis finding as a “compliance hurdle.” As specified in the Department's regulations and by statute, recognized agencies are required not only to comply with the criteria for recognition but to be effective in their application of those criteria. See 34 C.F.R. § 602.3, definition of "Recognition"; 20 U.S.C. § 1099b(l)(1). Relying on the conclusory statement that “it is undisputed that ACICS” has “competent individuals who have been trained for their roles,” ACICS has failed to address the Department staff’s concern about the effectiveness of the training – it has not submitted any information or documentation that it has evaluated whether the training provided to site visitors is effective for their roles and responsibilities. Rather than addressing effectiveness of its training program, ACICS attempts to deflect the Department’s concern by challenging the third-party comments that questioned the competency of representatives in the reviews of Virginia International University (VIU, now Fairfax University of America), Reagan National University (RNU), and Virginia College. Overall, the agency stated that none of these institutional examples are reflective of the incompetence of site visitors or members of the decision-making body or their lack of training, but that the failure to uncover the significant issues at those institutions could be due to other factors. In addition to this Compliance Report, ACICS has not demonstrated via the RNU Inquiry that ACICS has the administrative capacity to carry out its accreditation activities in light of its requested scope of recognition, to include sufficient training of agency representatives. Regarding the Ethics Review Committee, ACICS provided information and documentation that the members met the composition requirements (Exhibit 21) and of the May 2020 meeting of the ERC (Exhibit 22).
(6) Clear and effective controls against conflicts of interest, or the appearance of conflicts of interest, by the agency's--
(i) Board members;
(iii) Evaluation team members;
(v) Administrative staff; and
(vi) Other agency representatives; and
On November 21, 2018, Secretary Betsy DeVos issued her decision on the recognition status of ACICS, which included a compliance report for two sections of the Secretary's Criteria for Recognition. This section is one of the two sections in which the agency was required to provide information and documentation for compliance purposes. Specifically, the Secretary adopted the recommendation of the senior Department official (SDO) to require the agency to submit evidence that it requires its Intermediate Review Committee (IRC) members to sign conflict of interest attestations.
In response to the Secretary's decision, the agency provided information and documentation related to its clear and effective controls against conflicts of interest, or the appearance of conflicts of interest, by the agency's IRC members. The agency provided a narrative response with extensive citations to exhibits previously submitted to the Department for review by the SDO and Secretary (Exhibits B-O-75, B-O-81, B-O-103, B-O-92, B-O-91, and 263). However, as those exhibits were not attached to this compliance report, the complete record was not provided for this review by Department staff and must be submitted for review.
With regards to the IRC evidence, the agency stated that the Department was incorrect in applying the requirements of this section to the IRC, since the IRC is not a decision-making body. However, this section is applicable to all individuals who represent the agency, as provided in the regulation by "other agency representatives," which would include the IRC. In response, the agency provided the IRC roster (Exhibit 16) and signed conflict of interest forms (Exhibit 17). Three conflict of interest forms were not signed and one was missing from the roster of 75 IRC participants since 2016. Department staff request the signed conflict of interest forms from the March 2020 IRC to demonstrate compliance with this section. The agency also provided the IRC training binder to illustrate the expectations for the IRC with regards to conflict of interest and the procedures for the IRC assignments to avoid conflicts of interest (Exhibit 15).
In response to the draft staff analysis, the agency provided additional information and documentation concerning its clear and effective controls against conflict of interest. Specifically, the agency provided the documents that it had previously submitted to the Department for review by the SDO and Secretary in 2018 and cited in its initial submission of the Compliance Report. ACICS also provided completed versions of the missing or unsigned IRC Conflict of Interest Attestation forms, as well as the completed forms for the IRC members who participated in the March 2020 IRC session. The Department notes that ACICS had a year to prepare its Compliance Report and failed to provide a complete set of signed forms in its initial submission, and only provided the required documentation after Department staff noted the deficiency in its draft staff analysis.
Staff Analysis of 3rd Party Written Comments
Five written third-party comments were received regarding this agency, and all the comments reflect negative views regarding ACICS. The commenters include two members of Congress, representatives of a veterans' organization, representatives of two separate education organizations, and a group of 17 organizations (which includes three organizations that submitted separate comments).
Mostly, the commenters submitted areas of noncompliance noted in prior and other reviews by the Department, such as financial and administrative capability, monitoring, etc. All of the commenters referenced the decision of the prior administration to deny recognition to ACICS in December 2016 and make the request for ACICS to again be denied recognition in this review.
Three of the comments tied their areas of alleged noncompliance to Section 602.15(a)(2) of the Secretary's Criteria for Recognition (Criteria), and are included in that section.
The scope of this review is to assess the agency in the two specific areas of noncompliance noted in the Secretary's decision on recognition dated November 21, 2018. Therefore, only information and documentation concerning actions or examples in Sections 602.15(a)(2) and 602.15(a)(6) of the Criteria would be applicable to this analysis. No matter, the agency may wish to respond to the comments in its response to the draft staff analysis.