Was the Education Department really to blame for Stratford University closing?

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When Stratford University, a for-profit college with a handful of campuses in Virginia and Maryland, announced last month it was going to close, officials only gave students one week of notice before classes ended for good. 

The news made Stratford the latest in a long line of for-profit colleges to close precipitously. These sudden closures often leave students scrambling to figure out where their credits can transfer and how to finish their education. 

Stratford President Richard Shurtz, who owns the university with his wife, blamed the closure on the U.S. Department of Education. 

The department recently revoked recognition of Stratford’s accreditor, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, leaving the university with 18 months to find a new agency or else lose access to federal financial aid. In the meantime, the department placed heavy restrictions on colleges accredited by ACICS, including limitations on their enrollment

Shurtz said these actions made it impossible for Stratford to survive financially. But some policy experts contend the university could have taken actions months ago to change its fate. 

ACICS’ recognition has been under review — on and off again — since the Obama administration, with the latest threat to its recognition lasting more than a year before it was yanked. That gave Stratford ample time to find a new accreditor and avoid the Education Department’s restrictions, policy experts said.  

“To blame it on the department is misleading,” said Michael Itzkowitz, a senior fellow at Third Way, a center-left think tank. “The writing has been on the wall for about 18 months now.”

‘Six years of notice’

The future of ACICS had been in doubt several years before the Education Department revoked its recognition in August. The agency said it was stripping the agency of recognition because of continued noncompliance with the department’s standards, such as having adequate resources and staff expertise. 

It wasn’t the first time the Education Department yanked recognition from ACICS, which predominantly accredits for-profit colleges. In 2016, the Obama administration ended recognition of ACICS during a crackdown on proprietary institutions. 

The Trump administration reinstated the accreditor after ACICS waged a legal battle against the Education Department. But department officials repeatedly raised issues with ACICS — even after it regained recognition. 

For instance, Virginia state regulators flagged a college accredited by ACICS, Virginia International University, in 2019, alleging that the for-profit institution was home to rampant plagiarism and poor online education. And in 2020, a USA Today investigation found that another ACICS-accredited institution, Reagan National University, didn’t appear to have any instructors or students. 

In June 2021, a top Education Department official denied ACICS recognition. But ACICS appealed the decision.

By the time the Education Department revoked ACICS’ recognition in August — for the final time — the accreditor only oversaw about two dozen institutions. That’s down from more than 230 when ACICS first lost recognition in 2016. 

Barmak Nassirian, vice president for higher education policy at the interest group Veterans Education Success, questioned why Stratford had to close this time ACICS lost recognition. Stratford has been accredited by ACICS since at least 2002, well before the accreditor lost recognition for the first time. 

“It really sort of strains credulity to blame the department on this,” Nassirian said. “The institution has had better than six years of notice that its accreditor is in trouble.” 

Shurtz said Stratford was seeking accreditation with the Distance Education Accrediting Commission but did not respond to emailed questions about when university officials submitted an initial application. Applying for DEAC accreditation can take at least two years, and the agency can deny institutions after reviewing their curricula, outcomes and other matters. 

DEAC policies also forbid institutions that have applied for accreditation from suggesting that they are accredited or will be accredited until accreditation has been granted. 

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