Accreditor’s loss of federal recognition puts three Virginia schools at risk

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Unless they find another accreditor within 18 months, three higher education institutions in Virginia could lose their ability to offer federal aid after a recent decision terminated the federal government’s recognition of their accrediting agency. 

This August the U.S. Department of Education terminated the certification of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools after it “failed to demonstrate it could effectively evaluate, monitor and enforce quality standards for schools.”

ACICS had certified dozens of institutions nationally, including Virginia campuses of the University of North America, Stratford University, Fairfax University of America and California University of Management and Sciences.

The impact of ACICS’ loss of recognition in Virginia “will not be very large, but three schools will need to find another accreditor,” wrote Joe DeFilippo, director of academic affairs for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, in an email. 

Those institutions include the for-profit University of North America and the nonprofits Fairfax University of America and California University of Management and Science – Virginia.

None of those schools responded to requests for comment.

Accreditation ensures that institutions of higher education are meeting acceptable levels of quality. Crucially, the certification also allows students at such institutions to receive federal student aid.

Schools previously accredited by ACICS have been placed on provisional certification until they find another accreditor. Institutions that fail to find one within 18 months will lose their accreditation and ability to accept federal aid.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten wrote in her August decision that the agency failed to provide evidence that a few of its accreditation evaluators were trained, ignored its own standards while granting accreditation and showed ineffectiveness in monitoring institutions.

One of the issues cited by Marten was ACICS’ failure to uncover problems with distance education programs at Fairfax University of America (then called Virginia International University) that were later discovered by SCHEV. 

Stratford closure

The ACICS decision received renewed attention this week after Stratford University, a for-profit school that has been operating two campuses in Virginia in Woodbridge and Alexandria, announced it will cease operations on Friday, a week before the 10-week term was scheduled to end.

In an email sent to students obtained by the Virginia Mercury, Stratford President Richard Shurtz cited the decertification of its accreditor as a reason for its closure. 

Stratford has also been struggling for several years to keep its accreditation from ACICS and last year closed three of its Virginia campuses in Virginia Beach, Newport News and Glen Allen. 

Shurtz said in his email the decertification of ACICS and conditions imposed on the school by the Department of Education, including a prohibition on new enrollments, made it “impossible to continue in operation.”

“Without new students, we would not have the sufficient cash flow to operate,” he wrote. “We will be forced to close operations at the end of this term at all locations.”

Stratford told students that some other accredited schools will accept the university’s credits on a case-by-case basis.

However, students told the Mercury that not all their credits are transferable. Stratford officials scheduled an in-person meeting with nursing students and Chamberlain University College of Nursing on Wednesday, but the meeting was canceled.

Students said they are also concerned about running out of federal aid and applying for loans.

“I just don’t know what my next steps are, and I do not know if everything I have done is basically null and void,” said Amethyst Whitaker, a nursing student at Stratford University who split time between the Alexandria and Woodbridge campuses. “I think a lot of people are in that same state of mind because a lot of people have sacrificed a lot to be in school and to do well.”

ACICS said in a statement that it will “continue to provide oversight and quality assurance, including monitoring financial stability and student achievement, to these institutions until they either find another accreditor and/or voluntarily withdraw from the former accrediting agency.”

Ongoing problems

The federal government’s concerns with ACICS date back to at least 2016, when the accreditor first lost its recognition by the U.S. Department of Education. It was later reinstated by then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, but concerns were revived under Joe Biden’s administration in 2021.

“ACICS has had problems for several years, so it’s not surprising that the U.S. Department of Education removed their recognition,” said DeFilippo in his email. 

ACICS said in its statement that over the past several years it has made changes to enhance the rigor and quality of its accreditation process, including efforts to raise average student retention and graduation rates. 

But the number of schools it oversees has fallen. In 2016, ACICS accredited 237 schools with 361,000 students, according to the U.S. Department of Education. By this year, its total number of accredited institutions had dropped to 44.

One of the institutions it no longer accredits is Reagan National University, which USA Today found in 2018 had no students, faculty or physical presence.

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