The nation's largest accreditor of for-profit colleges has effectively been shut down, losing the right to certify schools. The final decision from the U.S. Department of Education comes in the waning days of the Obama administration, which has aggessively regulated the for-profit sector.
On Monday, the Education Department announced that the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Universities - or ACICS - is no longer a nationally recognized accrediting agency and can no longer determine which schools federal student aid.
The decision comes three months after the Department denied a final appeal from the agency.
"The interests of students are of foremost concern to me and this Department, but students' interests are best served by proper application of the recognition criteria," Secretary of Education John B. King wrote in a decision issued late Monday afternoon.
ACICS for certifying Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute - for-profit chains that federal officials found had lied to students about their graduation and job placement rates.
Some higher education researchers celebrated the decision to shut down ACICS.
"For years, we saw ACICS not only look the other way when problems arose, but actually hold up schools as examples of the best of the best,” said Ben Miller, Senior Director for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.
Miller said the decision sends a message that accreditors will be held accountable when they fail to do their job.
"De-recognition of ACICS is a strong and necessary action to protect students," Miller said.
The Council certifies more than 250 career colleges across the country, including about a dozen in Massachusetts, which collectively enroll about 300,000 undergraduate students who receive federal aid.
These schools now have 18 months to find a new accreditor or lose access to federal funding.
Secretary King is taking steps to reassure students that his decision will not immediately affect them or their school.
"For most institutions, there will be at least 18 months before federal student aid at the school is at risk," King wrote in a letter addressed to students. "That means some students - like those who are near the end of their program or who are preparing to transfer to another college or university will not see their program of study interrupted."
King added that students will receive a notice from their school within four months if their school is not seeking another federally recognized accreditor.
King's decision is the latest in a series of blows to the for-profit college industry.
Since Donald Trump's election, the industry has been breathing a sigh of relief, but it's unclear whether Trump's selection for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would move to reinstate ACICS as Trump and DeVos have said so little about higher education.
Miller says it will be difficult for the new Secretary of Education to reverse the decision.
"It's very easy to say that you're going to undo a bunch of things when you're not governing," Miller said. "But once you have the keys to the car, you have to drive it responsibly."