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A Slap On The Wrist For The School Where Students Couldn't Fail

The California university that maintained a no-fail policy for its thousands of foreign students has avoided serious sanctions for the time being.

Posted on September 7, 2016, at 1:34 p.m. ET

Michael J. Costa for BuzzFeed News

The controversial accreditor that gave its stamp of approval to Northwestern Polytechnic University has decided against revoking the school's accreditation, or threatening to do so, opting instead to issue a "compliance warning."

Northwestern Polytechnic University, or NPU, has operated as an upmarket visa mill for international students, BuzzFeed News reported in May, putting just a tiny fraction of its revenue towards its academic programs and employing no full-time faculty.

The school faked more than 600 student grades to keep foreign students from having to leave the country en masse, according to a trove of internal documents, and until January of this year had a policy that made it impossible for students to fail their classes.

NPU's ability to enroll thousands of international students depends on its status as an accredited university, provided by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. When alerted to the school's many shortcomings by a whistleblower in late 2014, ACICS did nothing, until this month's warning.

NPU was a hot topic at a July hearing discussing ACICS's future. One member of a panel appointed by the Education Department compared the accreditor's oversight of NPU to approving Trump University, saying both schools were "diploma mills." The panel eventually voted to terminate ACICS, although the process will be lengthy. If the government eventually does decide to officially de-authorize ACICS, the accreditor is expected to appeal.

Among its many other shortcomings, ACICS has overseen the for-profit schools involved in the two largest college collapses ever in the U.S.: Corinthian Colleges, which closed in 2015, and ITT Tech, which folded earlier this week.

The "compliance warning" ACICS issued against NPU this month, the organization's bylaws show, is "not a negative action" and is one of the least severe sanctions that the can be imposed. The accreditor may be treading carefully due to legal concerns: When it yanked the accreditation of a college earlier this year without first issuing any sanctions against the school, it prompted backlash from a judge, who ruled that ACICS should have given the school a chance to change its practices.

ACICS would not comment on the reason for the light sanctions against NPU, but a person briefed on the decision said the school was offered leeway in large part because many of the school's violations had taken place "under a previous administration." The person also said the accreditor believed some claims against the school were "exaggerated."

"They want to move on," the person said of ACICS' relationship with the new administration at NPU. The person said that the school's accreditation was not currently under threat because "these were things that happened in the past."

While NPU did appoint a new president, Peter Hsieh, in September of 2015, he is the son of the school's former president, George Hsieh. Peter Hsieh has been employed by the university since 2013, most recently as its executive vice president. His mother, Wen Hsieh, who records show was among the administrators that ordered the changing of student grades, is currently the chair of the school's board.

ACICS' new president, Roger Williams, declined to speak to BuzzFeed News, saying he had "far too many priority issues to deal with."

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