In the summer of 2014, a manager at a northern California nursing home reached out for help. She had recently hired two nursing graduates from a nearby for-profit school, Intercoast College. But she found them to be so poorly trained that she had to fire them because she worried that patients’ lives were at stake: one of them, she said, had actually administered ten times as much of a drug as was prescribed, mistaking a 5 cc prescription for 50 cc. The manager asked what could be done about the poor quality of the college.
The usual data sources did not show any sign that the school was on probation by its accreditor or facing other sanctions from some other agency. But to see if I might have missed something, I Googled the name of the school along with the name of the accreditor, the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET). Several documents popped up, including letters from the accreditor to the school over the previous eighteen months. These types of communications are usually kept secret, so it was a lucky find. And the letters were eye-opening, showing a disturbing pattern of incompetence or purposeful obfuscation in the school’s reporting of its graduates’ success in finding and keeping jobs.
Unreliable and misleading job placement claims, particularly but not exclusively at for-profit colleges, has been a repeating theme of scandals in the federal student aid programs for decades. And it is the subject of a report supported by TCF and released today by The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), an organization with significant expertise on college access and affordability, with a particular focus on student debt and its causes. The tale revealed by the letters to Intercoast College is one of a school unable or unwilling to tell the truth about its graduates, and an accrediting agency reluctant to take action to address the problem. The TICAS report’s recommendation would go a long way toward addressing the first of those all-too-common problems, suggesting that state and federal employment and earnings data should be used to produce success indicators that are not subject to negotiation between the school and the accreditor.
Years of Inaction
Here’s what happened between ACCET and Intercoast College, which at the time owned several small office-park style campuses in California, Maine, and New Hampshire. In December 2012, ACCET’s commissioners, sensing that something wasn’t right with the data submitted by the school, asked for backup verification for job placement claims for programs preparing pharmacy technicians, medical assistants, mental health rehabilitation technicians, alcohol and drug counselors, and “electrical training.” Reviewing the college’s response the following month, the ACCET staff found “pervasive shortcomings among the supporting documentation provided to verify the reported placements,” including claimed successful placements for which the evidence was “questionable, in some cases illegible, incomplete or otherwise unacceptable.” The accrediting agency staff sought more clarification.
The institution failed to provide adequate responses to the accreditor’s concerns by the time of the Commission’s April meeting, leading the commissioners to vote to place the college on probation due to concerns about the veracity and reliability of the data provided and doubts about the school’s ability to track and report the data appropriately. To underscore the seriousness of the situation, the Commission wrote the owner of the chain, Geeta Brown, that if she could not “provide absolute assurance” of the validity of the job placement data, the Commission would then require a review by a certified public accountant.
It was the type of response that one would hope for: a demand for clarity with a consequence if the school did not come through.
But while ACCET followed up on the data, it did not follow through on its tough talk. Four months later, in response to another submission of job placement verifications by the school, ACCET again found numerous problems, providing the school with a seven-page list showing all of the discrepancies between what the school reported and what the agency found. Rather than elevating the dispute, however, the Commission said that if the problem was not resolved, it “may” require a more formal review.
After the accreditor’s second retreat, four more months passed and ACCET sent another letter, a document which reveals why the school may have been reluctant to provide honest data in the first place: according to the ACCET staff analysis, the job placement rates in the majority of the school’s programs fell dramatically short of the accreditor’s requirements. Time for the hatchet to fall, right? The accreditor clearly must revoke the accreditation or take some type of serious action.
But no. The ACCET commissioners, inexplicably, gave Intercoast yet another chance to prove itself worthy of continued accreditation. And it gets worse: after another four months—by now it is April 2014, a year after Intercoast was placed on probation—ACCET once again finds questionable data and twelve programs that failed to meet job placement requirements (for example, of 149 nursing graduates in Portland, Maine, only 40 had jobs, terrible results for such a high-demand profession). Clearly, again, it was time for action by the accreditor. So the Commission voted—not to take punitive action, but to give Intercoast College a clean bill of health, removing it from probation.
Why did the commissioners feel the school deserved a break? The stated reason was “noted improvement relative to the institution’s placement verification tracking process.” In effect, this means that Intercoast College’s outcomes were still bad, but that it deserves a gold star for doing a better job of proving it. Accrediting agencies are controlled by the school owners and executives themselves, so they are sometimes reluctant to be too tough in sanctioning their members, since they could be next.
This is where the TICAS report comes in. The employment outcomes of colleges should not be secret, especially when students and taxpayers are paying many thousands of dollars, frequently with student loans, based on assumptions that the education will advance their earning potential. Furthermore, the question of whether graduates have successfully found employment is too important to be reported in a way that can be manipulated or obscured by school officials.
What Should Be Done
Federal and state governments have access to data that allow for independently and reliably verifying the employment outcomes information of any college or job training program. While the ability to determine whether graduates are working in a related field can sometimes be challenging, it is simple to determine proportions of graduates that are earning above a particular income level, a reasonable approximation of employment success. If the commissioners at ACCET knew that the world could peer in and see the numbers that they were seeing, perhaps they would not have been so lax. Or perhaps the U.S. Department of Education would not have approved, with flying colors, ACCET’s application for approval as a route to federal student aid, a decision that was made while Intercoast College was training those two nurses.
Intercoast College continues to be accredited by ACCET. In response to an inquiry about the chain’s performance as revealed by the 2013–2014 letters, the accrediting agency’s executive director, who started in 2014, said of Intercoast: “although not perfect, they have made progress over the years being very attentive to our completion rate expectations and verification processes. In some cases, they have ceased offering under-performing programs on given campuses and have even closed a campus as the result of our concerns.” It is helpful to know that the accreditor believes that Intercoast is on the mend. But in the absence of more detailed information, consumers and regulators are in the dark about the hazards of enrolling or funding the school. The TICAS recommendations would produce the more reliable and timely data that are necessary to protect students’ interests, the public interest, and, in the case of health care training programs, the interests of patients.