With the threatened shutdown of the largest national accrediting organization, state higher-education officials moved Tuesday to avoid the abrupt closure of 15 for-profit colleges in Virginia.
In the wake of the shuttering of ITT Technical Institute that stranded thousands of students, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia approved a contingency plan that would give an 18-month grace period to schools that receive their accreditation from the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, or ACICS. More than 9,000 students in Virginia are enrolled in ACICS-accredited schools, including Stratford University, Virginia College and Fortis College, all of which have campuses in the Richmond area.
Bon Secours Memorial College of Nursing in Richmond also is accredited by ACICS, whose termination has been recommended by the federal panel that oversees accrediting agencies.
Under SCHEV’s plan, ACICS institutions would keep their authorization to operate in the state during the grace period if the agency is shuttered, and the students could continue receiving federal financial aid.
State authorization is required for the institutions to receive federal Title IV student financial aid, which includes Pell Grants and loan programs. And in Virginia, accreditation by a recognized accreditor is a legal requirement for authorization.
If ACICS is terminated, schools would have 18 months to find a new accreditor. Without accreditation, the schools would lose access to the federal student loans and grants that keep most of them open.
That would be disastrous for students, said Joseph DeFilippo, SCHEV’s director of academic affairs and planning.
The shutdown this month of ITT Technical Institute showed that without the support of federal loans, the schools “fold in a matter of days,” he said.
ITT Technical closed Sept. 6 after the U.S. Department of Education banned the for-profit chain from accepting new students who require federal aid and imposed stringent new conditions for the continuation of loans to other students.
The governor’s office posted an online portal — www.governor.virginia .gov/ITT — last week to help ITT students continue their education or seek loan forgiveness.
ACICS, which accredited ITT, is under fire for the poor outcomes of students based on their job placement and graduation and loan repayment rates. The agency’s fate is expected to be determined within the next few months. Termination was recommended in June by U.S. Department of Education staff members and by the federal panel, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity.
The federal panel’s recommendation is now under review by senior education officials, with the final call to be made by Education Secretary John King.
According to SCHEV, ACICS accredits 245 institutions of higher education whose students receive about $5 billion in Title IV aid annually.
SCHEV said the contingency plan was necessary to avoid “abrupt and simultaneous” loss of Title IV eligibility for multiple institutions. The plan includes a shorter initial grace period of six months for two institutions, Stratford and American National University, which are not required to go through an annual recertification process because of the length of time they have operated in the state.
But the plan authorizes SCHEV to determine requirements to grant the schools the entire 18-month grace period.
The ACICS decision came during a two-day SCHEV meeting at Virginia Commonwealth University. On Monday, council members heard the concerns of the presidents of public universities, particularly as the state braces for a revenue shortfall.
College of William & Mary President W. Taylor Reveley III, who is chairman of the Council of Presidents, noted that other state agencies are preparing for a 5 percent cut to their budgets.
“We wonder what’s going to happen to us,” he said.
Reveley and other presidents said they feared losing budget gains made during the last session of the General Assembly and stressed the need for stable year-to-year funding levels.
SCHEV Chairman G. Gilmer Minor III pledged “a full-court press on the General Assembly to hold what we have in place.”