Accreditor to Offer New Model That Looks Into Corporate Practices of For-Profit Colleges

Officials from the U.S. Department of Education and Democrats in Congress have been pressing accreditors to ensure that the drive to improve profits at proprietary colleges does not shortchange students or taxpayers.

Now, a national accreditor is developing a process it says will look more intensely at the corporate structure of proprietary institutions and require safeguards against the kinds of abuses that critics allege are rampant.

The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, which assesses more than 850 career-oriented colleges, is set to introduce an optional category of accreditation that will require the corporations that own these institutions to demonstrate that they have adequate policies to prevent misbehavior and to enforce them.

During the past year, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, has focused several Senate hearings on alleged abuses by for-profit colleges, including findings from a 2010 federal investigation that accused the colleges of widespread fraud and deception in recruiting practices. The Education Department has also designed several new regulations to increase oversight of proprietary colleges, including a controversial proposal, not yet released, that could eliminate federal financial aid for programs where high proportions of students are not repaying the principle on their student loans or end up with excessive debt loads for the salaries they can earn.

The accrediting council’s new model for highly centralized for-profit colleges is not a direct response to recent Congressional scrutiny—the council has been developing the system for about two years—but council leaders believe it may ease some of lawmakers’ concerns.

As the for-profit college industry has grown, control of academic quality as well as policies on recruitment and financial aid has shifted from the campus to the corporate headquarters, said Thomas H. Wickenden, deputy executive director of the council. But accreditors have largely not adapted their practices to deal with that change, he said: "We’ve always ignored the corporation."

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