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Washington — The Education Department withdrew recognition of the nation’s largest accreditor of for-profit colleges on Thursday, a decision that could force schools to close and threaten financial aid to hundreds of thousands of students.

The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools said it would appeal the decision to Education Secretary John B. King Jr. Interim President Roger Williams said the council planned “to continue diligent efforts to renew and strengthen its policies and practices” to meet the department’s criteria for accreditors.

The accrediting agency has been accused of lax oversight of its schools, which included those once owned by the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges Inc. and the recently shuttered ITT Technical Institute.

In a letter to the agency, Emma Vadehra, King’s chief of staff, said “ACICS’ track record does not inspire confidence that it can address all of the problems effectively.”

Vadehra said the department found fundamental problems with the council’s functions as an accreditor. Her decision followed staff and advisory panel recommendations to sever ties with the council.

If ACICS loses its appeal, hundreds of schools would be forced to find a new accreditor within 18 months or lose their ability to participate in federal financial aid programs, such as student loans and Pell Grants. About 600,000 students currently attend ACICS-accredited institutions, Williams said.

While the appeal is pending, ACICS retains its federal recognition and remains determined to fully execute its accreditation responsibilities in a professional manner, he said.

Thursday’s decision was met with praise from Democratic lawmakers.

“Accreditors are supposed to be watchdogs, but this negligent agency rubber-stamped shady institutions like ITT and Corinthian for years, right up until the moment they collapsed,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

But Steve Gunderson, president of Career Education Colleges and Universities, an industry lobbying group that represents for-profits, said the decision will have “horrible ramifications for hundreds of thousands of students, thousands of dedicated faculty and staff, and hundreds of communities and employers that rely on institutions accredited by ACICS.”

Republican Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, echoed those concerns. “Hundreds of colleges will be forced to scramble to find a new accreditor so students don’t lose their aid and everything they’ve been working toward,” said Kline.

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