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The Days May Be Numbered For Corinthian Colleges' Accreditor

This could be the beginning of the end for the organization that accredited the now bankrupt for-profit Corinthian Colleges.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education took a step toward shutting down the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools by recommending it not be renewed as an accrediting body later this summer. Founded in 1912, ACICS is one of the country's oldest and largest college accreditors.

But it recently came under fire after continuing to accredit campuses owned by Corinthian while the for-profit giant lied about graduation rates and used aggressive sales tactics to recruit students.

Corinthian collapsed two years ago, after the government investigated its practices and then froze its access to student aid money. The recommendation issued Wednesday says that ACICS failed to meet federal standards and failed to hold schools accountable.

Although it may be something we can take for granted, college accreditation by an organization like ACICS is one of the most fundamental processes in higher education; it determines which schools get federal aid dollars and which schools do not.

In this case, there's billions in taxpayer dollars at stake. Just last year, campuses approved by the organization received more than $4 billion in federal student loans and grants.

In an interview a couple of weeks ago, ACICS' top executive, Anthony Bieda, said the agency subjects its schools to a 200-page survey.

"It requires everything, including mission purpose, administrative capacity of the organization," Bieda said, ticking of a long list of requirements.

"It includes faculty qualifications, scope and sequence of the curriculum, instructional materials, facilities, student services, library resources."

But Bieda claims that there was no indication Corinthian wasn't abiding by that long list of standards, or was misleading students.

"We did not [find Corinthian was misleading students]. We were comfortable — maybe mistakenly so — but we were comfortable that most of the time, most of the data they were providing was accurate," said Bieda. "The Department had a different perspective."

Perhaps with some foresight, Bieda announced this month that his agency would stop accepting new applications for colleges seeking to become accredited, but he defended the accreditation process and his agency's role in it.

"What is the alternative?" Bieda asked. "The alternative will be mid-level, government bureaucrats going into schools and saying, 'We deem this one to be good, we deem this one to be mediocre, and we deem this one to be bad.' "

In the case of Corinthian, Bieda admitted that the review could have been "more rigorous," or "more frequent."

"But at the end of the day, it's a matter of trust," he said.

A matter of trust, with billions of federal dollars on the line.

After first publishing this story we received this statement from Tony Bieda at ACICS:

"ACICS takes the Department's final staff report and recommendation very seriously. The recommendation to deny recognition is disappointing, and must be addressed directly and decisively by the Board and senior management of the agency.

ACICS took note that the Department acknowledged the steps we have taken to reform our accreditation process. ACICS is prepared to make our case as effectively as possible to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality next week."

Lydia Emmanouilidou contributed to the reporting for this story.

Copyright 2016 GBH

Kirk is a reporter for the NPR member station in Boston, WGBH, where he covers higher education, taking the time to capture the distinct voices of students and faculty, administrators and thought leaders.