What College Accreditation Changes Mean for Students

By: James Kvaal, Under Secretary of Education 

For millions of students like you, federal student loans and grants open the doors to a college education. That critical federal aid must be used at a school that is (among other things) given the seal of approval by an “accrediting agency” or “accreditor” recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. It’s one of the safeguards in the system designed to protect both taxpayers and students. 

Accreditation is an important signal to students, families, and the Department that a school offers a quality education. Accrediting agencies have a responsibility under federal law to make sure colleges earn that seal of approval, and staff within the Department of Education put in significant effort to work with accrediting agencies to maintain high standards, perform rigorous oversight, and where warranted, recommend terminating recognition when an accrediting agency is not living up to its responsibilities. Unfortunately, there are recent examples of schools that have continued to be approved by their accrediting agencies even if they have misled or defrauded students, provided students with a poor education, or closed suddenly without appropriate preparation and supports for students. 

While the Department does not determine whether an individual institution will receive approval by an accrediting agency, it does determine which agencies are recognized to accredit schools that participate in federal financial aid programs. The Department reviews accrediting agencies periodically to ensure they are holding up their obligations to recognize the quality of an institution. Accrediting agencies can have their ability to serve in this role terminated by the Department. When evidence exists, not terminating an accrediting agency’s federal recognition would be to sanction egregious behaviors that put you, your classmates and taxpayers in harm’s way. 

What decision did the Department make? 

Today, Deputy Secretary Cindy Marten – as part of our regular process for reviewing accrediting agencies – agreed with the Senior Department Official, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), and the Department staff’s recommendation to no longer recognize the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) as an agency that can provide schools with a seal of approval for the purposes of providing you and your classmates federal Pell grants, loans, or work-study funds. For more information about the failures that led to that recommendation, you can review other posts on our ACICS website. 

The colleges currently accredited by ACICS will be able to offer financial aid to their students for at least 18 more months. You may be able to finish your program at your school, or you might consider transferring. Whatever you choose to do, remember: getting education or training beyond high school is still the surest way to get a good-paying job and pursue your dreams. The Department is here to support you. 

How do I know if my school is accredited by ACICS? 

You can look it up here. 

What does this mean for students at ACICS-accredited institutions? 

Most students will not see much change in their day-to-day experience in class. Many institutions will not be impacted for the next 18 months, the deadline the institutions have to seek accreditation with another recognized agency. 

The 18-month time frame means that, ideally, a significant number of students who already have started at one of these schools will be able to complete their certificates or degrees before anything changes. Generally speaking, if you’re near the end of your program or you were already preparing to transfer to another college or university, this news probably won’t interrupt your plans. However, some schools may choose to close within the next 18 months. Your school and the Department will let you know directly if that’s the case. 

Again, if you’re wondering whether changes in your school’s accreditation status might affect your specific plans, you should reach out to your school for individualized information. 

It’s worth noting here that licensing for some jobs – but not all – may require that your program is currently accredited by a Department-recognized accrediting agency. Contact your institution and/or the state licensure board in your field to see if this is the case. 

What happens next? 

Your school and others accredited by ACICS now have 18 months to get a new seal of approval from a different recognized accrediting agency to continue offering federal student aid, as well as participate in programs from other federal agencies (including the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs). Schools accredited by ACICS can offer federal financial aid during this 18 month transitional period, and your aid should not be affected. Both the Department and your school will notify you if benchmarks are not being met or events happen that will threaten your school’s access to federal student aid. 

What if my school closes? 

If your school does decide to close, it will be required to make plans for you to complete your degree at a nearby institution and make sure you can access your transcript and other student records. If your school closes, the Department will also make additional resources available to you and your classmates and may discharge your loans in certain circumstances. 

Okay, so it will take a while, but what if my school ultimately can’t find an accrediting agency? 

At that point, you would no longer be able to use your federal student aid at your school. In the past, this has caused some schools to close permanently. If you want to continue your education using federal loans or grants past that point, you’ll need to transfer; the Department and your school will give you and your classmates ample warning that they are not on track to maintain accreditation at certain benchmarks. 

An institution losing eligibility for federal student aid programs will prepare a “teach-out plan” and make it available to students. This plan should, at a minimum, list any nearby institutions that offer similar programs and those institutions’ policies for accepting your transfer credits from your current school. Ideally, those plans include actual agreements with other institutions to accept transfer credits for specific programs. 

Schools are required to have a plan in place to inform you and your classmates about your options, so students are not left scrambling. You should request information about this teach-out plan from your school if you are interested in pursuing transfer. You should contact the Department via the FSA student feedback page, and/or the office in your state that oversee higher education if you discover that your school does not have such a plan available. 

You can also choose to not continue your program at another school. If your school closes before the end of your program, you may apply for a “closed school discharge” of your federal Direct loans. You should contact your loan servicer to determine your eligibility. 

Will my school remain open the full 18 months? 

We can’t say one way or another; we hope that all institutions will be able to find a new accrediting agency and stay open. However, it remains possible that your school could decide to close (or stop accepting federal financial aid), rather than find a new accrediting agency. If they decide to do so, they are required to notify you. 

If an institution is at particularly high risk of not being able to maintain accreditation, the Department will apply some additional conditions to ensure students are protected; a school might decide to close or stop taking federal financial aid rather than comply with those requirements. If either of those happens, your school will provide you with more information as soon as it makes the decision to close, and the Department will do everything we can to provide more information about your options. 

What if I want to transfer out of my school? 

That’s a decision only you can make, but we have some tools that can help if you decide to transfer. You might want to check out the College Scorecard to look at other options and see how well those schools prepare their graduates for life after college. Again, circumstances will be unique to each student and 

I just started a program at an ACICS-accredited school and my program lasts longer than the 18-month window. What should I do? 

You may want to be in touch with your school now, at the start of the 18-month period, to make sure it has a solid plan to pursue accreditation with a different accrediting agency or to provide you with transfer options. Throughout the coming months, if the school isn’t on track for a new accreditation process, we’ll require it to disclose that information directly to its students and to share more information about your options to continue your program at another school. 

You might also want to do a little research using the College Scorecard. Using this tool, you can make sure your school has a track record of preparing its students for successful careers and compare program-level salary data for recent graduates. You can also compare other options if you’re interested in transferring. 

I already graduated from an ACICS-accredited school. Is my degree compromised? 

No. The hard work you put in and the skills you gained cannot be taken away from you. Your school was accredited by an agency recognized by the Department when you earned your degree, so that degree is valid, and you’ll never have to return your certificate or diploma. 

However, some states have laws that may affect the validity of licenses or certifications for specific occupations. If you have concerns about your license or credential, please contact the relevant licensure board in your state. 

Now what? 

If a school is not on track to be accredited by another accrediting agency, then it should be in touch immediately with students and share information about their options. Ask your school to share its plans publicly, to reassure you and your classmates on the quality of their degree programs and their plans to regain accreditation. You can track your school’s accreditation history here. 

For our part, we’ll keep working to protect America’s students and support them as they work to complete their degree or credential. Whatever you choose to do, please know this: you have a wealth of options in pursuing your education, so don’t stop. Getting a high-quality degree or credential in a field where employers are hiring is still the surest way to provide for your future economic security. 

Thanks for all the info, but I still want to know more about what I can expect. 

Here are more details on student protections we’re requiring institutions to follow while they try to find a new accrediting agency. 

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