Who will accredit the accreditors?

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This week, a large, publicly traded for-profit college outfit called Career Education Corp. reached a $10 million settlement agreement with the New York attorney general over charges of gross deception.

Under the terms of the settlement, Career Education admitted that only 24 percent to 64 percent of graduates were able to find meaningful jobs. The company had touted an inflated rate of 55 percent to 80 percent, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Here’s a question: where were the accreditation agencies that oversee Career Education’s bevy of schools? Have they de-accredited those schools?

At least one of Career Education’s accreditors, the Accreditation Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC), has done no such thing. Instead, the ACCSC has been busy hounding a tiny massage training school out of business.

That school, Professional Massage Training School (PMTC) in Springfield, Mo., has an employment rate of better than 90 percent for graduates. By contrast, the claimed employment rate among all ACCSC schools is about 80 percent. PMTC also has a graduation rate of 75 percent. The average among all ACCSC schools is 69 percent.

The student-loan default rate for PMTC is 4.2 percent. Just over 20 percent of the students who attend a for-profit college default on student loans.

The account told by PMTC’s owner, Juliet Mee, is a story of David vs. Goliath. She’s David. The ACCSC is Goliath.

The school held accreditation in good standing from November 2000 until early 2012, when the ACCSC denied its renewal application. In the lawsuit that followed, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction allowing PMTC to continue operating (on probation) and receiving vital federal tuition funds.

The ACCSC revoked the massage therapy school’s accreditation for a few reasons.

The accreditor charged that Mee is a bad manager because she fired two employees during a short period of time and because she didn’t properly document faculty members’ work experience. Another charge was that the massage school had an unacceptable arrangement for students to use the library resources of nearby Missouri State University.

In a phone interview with TheDC, Mee defended her institution.

“I feel like we are a very good school,” she said. “We are a small school. There are problems with small schools. But there are definitely problems with large schools.”

The ACCSC disagreed, though, and, without its stamp of approval, Mee’s massage school can’t accept student loans and grant funding—the lifeblood of most American higher education institutions.

“Our students do rely on Pell Grants and loans,” she said. “The accreditors are definitely the gatekeepers for this funding.”

In an affidavit provided during the litigation, Mee explained that 90 percent of her students receive federal student loans.

Mee’s biggest complaint in her accreditation battle is an alleged lack of due process. According to Mee, the ACCSC deleted a slew information — notes, emails, etc. — in spite of a federal mandate requiring accreditation agencies to maintain “all correspondence that is significantly related” to accreditation decisions.

“There was a lack of transparency,” Mee told TheDC. “We weren’t allowed access to information about us. They deleted the information about us after they revoked the accreditation.”

Emails that Mee’s attorneys were eventually able to obtain showed that staffers from the ACCSC wrote that they personally disliked her.

Attorneys for PMTC argue that the accreditation agency scorns due process and transparency despite a duty to provide both.

“This is not a local story and it’s not a story about a professional massage company that people can snicker about,” said Lanny Davis, one of Mee’s attorney. “This is about a group given power by the Department of Education that is killing a company without due process or transparency. I think the Department of Education has failed miserably in overseeing these secretive, operating-in-the-dark agencies that have the power of life and death over these institutions and abuse that power.”

The ACCSC is sort of “the trade school cops.” It’s an independent, non-governmental, nonprofit, agency based in Arlington, Va. that accredits postsecondary trade and technical schools all over the country. It sets the standards that the schools need to meet, then monitors whether schools are meeting the standards.

A very large number of ACCSC-accredited schools are for-profit institutions: Kaplan College, Le Cordon Bleu and the like. The agency also accredits a multitude of smaller trade schools covering everything from pet grooming to helicopter pilot training.

The ACCSC is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Its website makes this point proudly — blaringly — at the very top of the “About Us” section, which otherwise stresses “integrity” and “accountability.”

So why would the ACCSC pick on Juliet Mee’s massage training school as opposed to, say, Career Education Corp., the company that just settled for $10 million with the New York attorney general?

Maybe it’s money. The ACCSC receives member fees from the schools it accredits. These member fees are calculated by a school’s size. For instance, big corporate schools pay dues of upwards of $300,000 each year. A smaller school, like PMTC, pays something like $5,000 per year.

A long, absolutely scathing U.S. Senate report entitled “For Profit Higher Education: The Failure to Safeguard the Federal Investment and Ensure Student Success” lays out the appalling behavior by several for-profit education players.

The Senate report has much to say about Career Education Corp, which operates 83 campuses in the United States including Le Cordon Bleu, Brown College, Sanford–Brown and a host of others.

The ACCSC accredits two out of 17 total Le Cordon Bleu campuses, both campuses of Brown College and two of 15 Sanford-Brown campuses.

According to the Senate report, internal company documents reflect pressure on recruiters employed by Career Education to meet enrollment targets prior to a 2011 ban outlawing the practice.

In a training document called “Telephone Tips,” for example, recruiters were instructed to “NOT GIVE TOO MUCH INFORMATION” and “create a sense of urgency” during calls with prospective students. (The actual document contains the capitalization.)

“Limit the time frames that you offer to that student [for an in-person appointment] and always express to them how busy your schedule is,” the document directs.

Prospective students who enrolled (and often borrowed lots of money) did not fare well overall at Career Education’s schools nationwide. Out of over 97,000 students who enrolled in 2008-09, over 53 percent, (51,733 to be exact) withdrew by mid-2010. Enrolled students typically lasted four months.

The Senate report charges that “students spent thousands of dollars in exchange for what was sold to them as highly-specialized career training with promises of gainful employment.” What they got instead was “no opportunities for employment in their fields” and course credits that “would not transfer to other colleges.”

Career Education’s overall student loan default rate is 21.6 percent within three years of leaving school.

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