Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos illegally reinstated a for-profit college accreditor, the Accrediting Council of Independent Colleges and Schools, after it had been stripped of its status for “pervasive noncompliance” with student protection rules. By extending ACICS’s recognition, DeVos allowed the failing schools accredited by ACICS to continue enrolling students and accepting federal student aid—even though she lacked the legal authority to do so.

ACICS has long served as the accreditor for many of the country’s predatory for-profit institutions, allowing taxpayer funds in the form of federal student loans to flow to what Senator Warren’s office has called “some of the sleaziest actors in American higher education.” After the Department revoked ACICS’s recognition in December 2016, schools had an 18-month grace period to find a new accreditor before they would no longer be able to accept federal student aid. Approximately 85 ACICS-accredited colleges were unable to find another accreditor because they failed to meet industry quality standards.

DeVos’s recognition allowed schools like Virginia College to collect federal loan disbursements until their abrupt closure, leaving students saddled with debt and with no academic credits for their incomplete semester. Trusting their Department of Education, their school, and its accreditor, Plaintiffs Mark Passut and Mark Kaiser took out significant student loans to re-enroll in Virginia College, one of the failing for-profit colleges accredited by ACICS and operated by Education Corporation of America, for the Fall 2018 term. ECA enrolled 18,000 students across its campuses.

Virginia College and the rest of ECA’s 70 campuses collapsed in December 2018 before the end of their term, preventing the plaintiffs— and thousands of other students like them—from gaining the academic credits for which they worked so hard, and leaving them saddled with student loan debt.

We and the National Student Legal Defense Network filed our lawsuit on behalf of these students as a class action, to force the Department to relieve ECA students of this unlawfully issued federal student debt. By acting without legal authority or any substantive review process, DeVos violated federal law, including the Administrative Procedure Act. She also relied on the advice of Principal Deputy Under Secretary Diane Auer Jones, her senior advisor regarding accreditation. Like Secretary DeVos, Jones has long-standing ties to the for-profit education industry, including ACICS, and has made statements that suggest a skepticism of the recognition process.

Following DeVos’s unlawful decision to continue ACICS’s accreditor status, Democracy Forward demanded that Auer Jones recuse herself from further review of ACICS, something she failed to do. Learn more about Diane Auer Jones and our demand letter.

We expect the government to respond to our lawsuit in the coming months.

December 2016

The Department of Education withdrew ACICS’s recognition, beginning an 18-month grace period.

This revocation followed the collapse of Corinthian Colleges and ITT Educational Services, Inc., and a thorough review of ACICS’s performance. After the grace period, colleges accredited by ACICS would no longer be able to accept federal student aid.

During the 18-month grace period (through June 2018)

Approximately 85 ACICS-accredited colleges were unable to find another accreditor because they failed to meet industry quality standards.

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March 2018

Following a challenge by ACICS, a court remanded the matter back to Trump's Department of Education to consider additional evidence.

The court did not, however, vacate the 2016 decision to strip ACICS's recognition. The court’s decision therefore allowed the Department to reconsider ACICS’s status without putting students at risk in the interim.

April 2018

Sec. DeVos temporarily reinstated ACICS's status without any review, allowing the company to continue accrediting schools that were otherwise failing.

Schools accredited by ACICS—including those owned by the Education Corporation for America, like Virginia College—continued enrolling students and receiving their federal student aid benefits beyond the initial 18 month deadline.

December 2018

The 70 campuses owned by ECA, including Virginia College, abruptly closed their doors before the end of the fall semester.

These schools would not have remained open for the Fall 2018 term without the intervention of the Department of Education. The collapse left students with wasted time, burdensome loans, and no academic credits for the term.

June 3, 2019

We filed our class action lawsuit on behalf of two Virginia College students.

Jeffrey Dubner

Senior Counsel

Challenging unlawful executive branch actions through a wide range of legal strategies

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