When U.S. Marine Anselm Caddell completed his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, all he wanted to do was pursue a degree in criminal justice. It was a path he believed would provide him with the skills and credentials for a career in the security industry. A recruiter from the for-profit Brown Mackie College in Caddell’s native Ohio promised him that a degree from this “veteran-friendly” college would enhance his impressive military résumé and guarantee the career in security to which he aspired.
Instead of working toward a brighter future, however, Caddell found himself idling in high school-level courses and sparring with a financial services department that seemed determined to drive him into debt. Worst of all, when he’d had enough and tried to transfer to a California community college to finish his degree, he found that contrary to what Brown Mackie had told him, he was unable to transfer any of the credits and would need to start over from scratch. Caddell’s Brown Mackie education had also exhausted his eligibility for student loans.
I wish Caddell’s story were an isolated one, but unfortunately it’s a feature — not a bug — of the for-profit college industry. Too often, for-profit colleges target veterans for their G.I. Bill money and other federal-aid dollars, promising an education and gainful employment that they do not deliver. How can this happen? Safeguards are theoretically in place, in the form of accrediting agencies that require schools to meet certain standards or risk losing federal funding. But when the accreditor fails, students lose.
Brown Mackie was authorized by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), a national accreditor that was a gatekeeper to billions in federal-aid payments to more than 245 career-oriented colleges, most of them for-profit institutions. ACICS most notably approved the Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech chains of schools until their collapse amid allegations of fraud and predatory practices.
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education terminated its recognition of ACICS as a nationally recognized accrediting agency, saying that its track record “does not inspire confidence that it can address all of the problems effectively.” Countless veterans wasted hard-earned G.I. benefits at ACICS-accredited schools that aggressively marketed to military members, even when they were stationed overseas.
Last week, after granting several reprieves, the U.S. Department of Education reinstated federal recognition of ACICS, arguing that the agency had instituted a number of reforms to clean up its act. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos acted on the advice of one of her top deputies, Diane Auer Jones. The department had previously given ACICS-accredited schools a June 12, 2018 deadline to find accreditation elsewhere or lose access to federal financial aid.
A for-profit school association appealed the Education Department’s decision to shut down the agency, however, and in March 2018 a federal court ordered the department to revisit the agency’s compliance. The court’s decision only emboldened DeVos, who has deep ties to the for-profit industry. In April, DeVos granted ACICS yet another reprieve when she decided to reinstate the agency temporarily and eliminate the June 12 deadline altogether. ACICS continued to accredit subpar schools, but its future remained uncertain.
In September, Jones — a former for-profit college lobbyist — recommended that ACICS be allowed to continue as a federally recognized accreditor for an additional year, giving it even more time to comply with Education Department standards.
This is absurd. Career analysts report that ACICS failed to meet 57 of the 93 criteria that accreditors are required to meet under federal law. And the evidence is overwhelming that the majority of abuses on which ACICS was supposed to crack down were concentrated at ACICS-accredited colleges in the for-profit sector. That the agency has served simply as a rubber stamp for dishonest and poorly performing for-profit colleges to access federal funding is no secret.
A new analysis from Veterans Education Success — which looked at student outcomes at ACICS-accredited schools during the grace period between December 2016 and April 2018 — found students faring even worse than before, showing a substantially smaller chance of succeeding in today’s workforce and paying down educational debt after attending.
Of the institutions that remain within ACICS’ portfolio, 90 percent are for-profits, and most were rejected by other accreditors because they failed to meet minimum standards. In terms of consumer fraud, five of the current ACICS schools have, in recent years, faced federal and state sanctions and lawsuits.
Worse, according to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, institutions that ACICS currently accredits enroll more than 10,000 G.I. Bill beneficiaries and receive more than $73 million in post-9/11 G.I. Bill tuition benefits.
The Education Department’s decision to reinstate ACICS as a federally recognized accreditor will likely mean that student veterans and taxpayers won’t see returns on their investments. Students may end up worse off than if they hadn’t attended college at all. Just ask Anselm Caddell, who still struggles to make ends meet as he repays those Brown Mackie loans while also trying to afford a real education at a California community college.
DeVos has once again shown disregard for the tens of thousands of student veterans who’ve experienced real harm from enrolling in ACICS-accredited schools, while rewarding the negligent oversight agency that allowed the harm to happen.
Matthew Boulay is an Iraq War veteran and the executive director of the Veterans Student Loan Relief Fund.