Dozens of Closing For-Profit Schools May Have Pushed Some HBCUs Closer to Extinction

The Education Corporation of America shut down dozens of campuses nationwide this week, leaving 20,000 students left to figure out the next move of their academic careers with few answers while adding another example to the growing narrative of collapsing for-profit educational models.

Benedict College in South Carolina was among the first historically black colleges to announce its plans to review the credentials of students displaced by ECA school closures, which occurred after the company lost its accreditation from the Accrediting Council of Independent Colleges (ACICS), an oversight body which had its privileges revoked in 2016, and restored last month by Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education.

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ACICS has overseen the collapse of two major for-profit higher education companies in the last two years; ITT and now ECA. Both companies’ campuses suffered from declining enrollment, and public pressure to reform its approach to recruitment and promotion of job training and placement outcomes for students.

But where ITT folded under pressure from an antagonistic White House largely against for-profit college access, ECA’s closing comes while an unequivocal partner of for-profit schools sits in charge of the Department of Education. That could spell trouble for many kinds of schools most vulnerable to the same issues of flagging enrollment and institutional debt which shut down the Education Corporation of America’s portfolio; including HBCUs.

If ACICS can move to shut down a school with a supportive administration on Capitol Hill, what incentive is there for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Middle States Commission on Higher Education or Higher Learning Commission to stretch accreditation standards for struggling HBCUs?

If a for-profit advocate is compelled to prune its own membership roster to preserve its brand as a responsible clearinghouse for federal funding, will other accrediting agencies feel the same pressure?

Council for Higher Education Accreditation President Judith S. Eaton put it best in a policy briefing issued last year on governmental interference in accreditation oversight.

“Accountable for whom” is about accreditation now expected to be answerable, first and foremost, to constituents outside higher education–students, government, and the public. It is now no longer enough for accreditors to be accountable to the institutions and programs they review and the higher education community generally, as in the past. Accountability to the broad public arena is emerging as the primary lens through which accreditation is judged. If, for example, an accrediting organization claims to be doing a good job but if the institutions it accredits graduates few students or has other difficulties, the accrediting organization itself is judged as lacking. What institutions and programs judge as effective accreditation is being superseded by the judgment of the public.

The time for accrediting agencies looking poorly in the eyes of the federal government and American taxpayers has arrived. And with this arrival, there is a new culture of accountability that schools will have to face. In the past, HBCUs were able to survive threats of accreditation loss because HBCU presidents and vice-presidents worked in concert to get on site visit committees, and high-ranking officials and board members lobbied firmly for non-HBCU voices to understand the unique challenges faced by black colleges.

ACICS’ action shows that underperformance will no longer be protected by accrediting agencies sticking to their standards and principles. The agencies know how the game is played and understand that the biggest player of all, the Dept. of Ed, holds all of the chips when it comes to which agencies can vouch for which school types and for what reasons.

So what happens when a new day for accountability in higher education could mean doomsday for several HBCUs?