Going to Brightwood College in the 2018 fall semester was supposed to be a safe bet. So thousands of students enrolled across the country.
For those students and others, a degree is supposed to be a lifeline. They sink in time and money that could be spent in the workforce, all for the prospect of higher earnings and a more fulfilling career.
But Brightwood students' investment didn't pay off. What's more, a regulatory group had signed off on the college's programs - only to change its mind.
Accreditation, as it's called, is meant to prevent predatory or shoddy schools from leading students astray. And the Accrediting Council of Independent Colleges and Schools had given its signal to students that Brightwood was a worthwhile investment.
Yet in December 2018, the agency revoked the accreditation of Education Corp. of America, which ran the Brightwood locations and other colleges across the country. The closures of dozens of institutions followed swiftly. Students had spent the time and money but still had no degrees and no clear path forward.
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Many of them still struggle. In a Facebook group for students of the closed college, some commiserate over what they call worthless degrees. Others try to give advice about how to get their student loan discharged or receive their transcripts.
What's more, the Accrediting Council of Independent Colleges and Schools had a checkered history itself. President Barack Obama's administration had moved to strip it of its powers to OK school programs, but after a legal battle, President Donald Trump's administration undid that move.
The Education Corp. of America colleges were just some of the institutions that suddenly closed in recent years. ITT Tech closed in 2016. Corinthian Colleges did the same in 2015. Both had been accredited by ACICS. The accrediting group said it gave multiple warnings, but the colleges weren't able to meet its standards.
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Now, the Education Department is looking to change the arcane and bureaucratic process of accreditation.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and accreditors of universities say new rules will ultimately allow colleges to offer programs more quickly and effectively. That means students landing a job in fields that are hiring, they say.
"With these reforms, our nation's colleges and universities can spend more time and effort on serving students and less time, energy, and money focused on bureaucratic compliance," DeVos said in a statement.
Critics of the newly proposed rules say they would make it easier for shady colleges to operate for longer and with less federal oversight.
Many colleges are already doing a poor job of preparing students, said Clare McCann of the think tank New America. Giving them more latitude under the guise of innovation may lead to students taking chances on junk programs, she argued.
"What these regulations really do is make it so it is much harder to hold those schools accountable," McCann said.
If anything, the government should hold these agencies to a higher standard, she said.
The public has until July 12 to give feedback on the proposed changes. Here's what you should know.
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What is accreditation?
To receive federal money, universities must meet the quality standards of an accrediting organization. According to the Education Department, these agencies ensure schools have "qualified instructors, an adequate curriculum, and necessary support services" for students. In other words, they're meant to prevent students from ending up with worthless degrees.
Accreditation can essentially be seen as a seal of quality for students, the government and even future employers. And students at unaccredited colleges can't access federal money in the form of student loans.
The government doesn't directly accredit schools, but the Department of Education does decide who is and isn't fit to be an accreditor. The new rules were agreed upon by department officials, accreditors, college leaders and students during several negotiation sessions.
What's the Education Department trying to do?
Among the changes, the proposed rules would allow colleges to offer new programs with less scrutiny from accreditors. The idea is that colleges could see a hole in the workforce and quickly come up with a new degree or credential to fill it. Accrediting agencies and for-profit colleges like this proposed change.
Under the current rules, it may take months to make changes to a program's curriculum, said Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. The group is made up of 3,000 colleges, and it focuses on accreditation. The new rules, she argued, would mean a less onerous process for accreditors when dealing with the federal government. And, she said, the new rules may make it so that universities feel free to experiment with, for example, new credentialing programs or increased online courses.
If a college or accrediting group abused the new rules, the Education Department should crack down quickly, she said.
What about colleges that fail?
The proposed rules would also allow schools that have failed to meet accreditation standards up to four years to fix their problems - double the previous amount of two years. The rationale? These changes sometimes take a long time, and allowing the university to fix a problem may lead to more students graduating.
Closing an underperforming college right away, in contrast, may leave those students without an education and nowhere to go to finish their degree.
That is a change welcomed by Nicholas Kent, a vice president at Career Education Colleges and Universities, a group of for-profit colleges.
Critics have said the measure may allow bad colleges to do more damage, but Kent called that description "disingenuous," saying different programs will have different needs. A nine-month certificate program, he said, will need less time to fix a problem compared with a 6-year-doctoral program.
And he said accreditors are not required to give four years to everyone. Instead, they have the discretion to do so, and they can set up other check-ins.
But allowing a bad institution to operate longer may mean more students attend the failing institution, wasting time and money. And it could cost taxpayers more money because the school could continue to get federal grants and loans, Antoinette Flores, an associate director at the liberal Center for American Progress, has argued.
Plus, she said, the proposed rules could make it easier for outside entities to buy failing colleges. The Department of Education wants to limit a new owner's liability.
"In practice, that means we're never going to see any of these institutions going away," Flores said. "That increases the likelihood we're recycling failed, toxic assets in the system, and we're never really getting rid of the lowest performances."
What happens next?
Want to review the proposed rules yourself? Visit the Federal Register, where the proposal is available in its entirety.
The period for public comment ends July 12, so if you have an opinion, file it on the Federal Register's website.
Any rule changes would follow the public comment period.
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: A worthless degree? Betsy DeVos wants to change rules for which colleges stay open, close