A year after a USA Today Network investigation revealed an accredited university in South Dakota didn’t seem to have students or staff, a federal panel voted Friday to strip the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools of its federal recognition.
That recommendation could mean the end of the road for the troubled accreditor, which had previously made headlines for its role in accrediting ITT Tech and Corinthian Colleges, two massive for-profit colleges that shutdown without much warning in the mid-2010s.
Accreditors operate independently of the federal government, but their approval by the Education Department allows them to decide which colleges can access federal money including student loans or Pell grants. The decision, which was decided by a 11-1 vote, came after hours of discussion and reviews of hundreds of pages of documents reviewing the accreditor’s monitoring, or lack thereof, of colleges.
A senior department official will now make the final call about ACICS’ future, and the agency could still appeal the decision. But if the agency does lose its accrediting power, the nearly 60 institutions accredited by ACICS would need to find a new accreditor if they want to continue accessing federal money.
Investigation into South Dakota’s Reagan National University
Thursday’s review stemmed partially from the USA TODAY investigation in February 2020 that found Reagan National University didn’t appear to have students or faculty members. Important links on the website, like one to register for classes, also didn’t work. And a reporter visited the campus multiple times and found nobody there.
And the university’s president — Harold Harris, per the school’s website — was similarly invisible. University presidents often serve as an institution’s public face. But the only face on Reagan National’s site was the institution’s namesake U.S. president. Additionally, the president of the university on the South Dakota business license was listed as “Xuanhua Fan.”
Trying to reach the president, or anyone associated with the university, a reporter called the number listed on the school’s website. Someone answered by saying, “Reagan National University,” but said they were not interested in an interview and hung up.
Twice, on Jan. 29 and Feb. 12, a South Dakota reporter visited the listed addresses for Reagan National University. In one location, the doors were locked and the office suite was dark. Both had signs bearing the school’s name. At another location, the suite was mostly empty, save for some insulation scattered on the floor and a shop vacuum. Workers were remodeling parts of the Reagan suite for a possible new tenant after the office space was listed for lease in August 2019.
None of the workers knew anything about Reagan National University.
When a South Dakota reporter visited the same office four years ago – then called Si Tanka University before it was renamed to Reagan in 2017 – there were also no signs of life.
Emails sent to the school were not returned, and though a reporter found the university was tied to other locations in Sioux Falls, those locations also had no signs of activity either when the reporter tried to visit multiple times.
And days before USA TODAY papers published the investigation, the university took down its website.
In a similar time frame, the university withdrew from the accreditation process. ACICS has told USA TODAY it had correctly followed its procedures. But the story also prompted the Education Department to open its own inquiry.
Other issues around the ACICS
The Reagan investigation, though, was just one of several issues the committee considered Thursday. Different reviews looked at the agency’s financial health, its handling of two other universities, and general compliance reports. And of the four reports considered, all of which started under President Trump, career staff with the Education Department suggested in all cases that the agency lose its status as a federal accreditor.
The hours-long advisory committee hearing was just the latest stop on a for the long-troubled accreditor.
In 2016, the Obama-era Education Department moved to strip the agency of its power. A federal court, however, reopened the issue, and the department under Trump reinstated the agency in 2018.
In a recently released report, the department’s inspector general found the department acted within its powers when it reinstated ACICS under DeVos. It also found that the department failed to consider “all relevant information,” when it reviewed the agency in 2016. That decision, the watchdog report found, allowed ACICS to successfully challenge the department’s findings in court.
The inspector general’s report did not address the findings of the other reports presented to the committee on Thursday. Still, the panel delayed its decision from Thursday to Friday to give its members a chance to read the findings.
Earlier this year, career staff at the department recommended that ACICS lose its accreditation power because, among other things, it failed to demonstrate, “it has competent and knowledgeable individuals, qualified by education and experience.”
At the advisory meeting, the department made that case. (Much of the discussion was focused on Reagan National University.)
For example, ACICS’s staff visited Reagan National University and were unable to, “retrieve, view or assess any instructional material,” and that students didn’t have access to textbooks. Yet, the lack of materials weren’t listed as deficiencies, according to Elizabeth Daggett, a career staffer in the department’s accreditation group. That revealed, Daggett said, a lack of training and administrative capabilities.
In another instance, Daggett said the accreditor failed to gather enough student responses in its visits to Reagan. Only 6 of the roughly 50 students responded to a survey distributed by the accreditation team in 2017, according to case documents. And only 3 of the roughly 70 responded to another survey conducted in 2019. But ACICS said this was not an issue.
“The team ensures the distribution of the surveys, but it cannot force students to respond,” they wrote in response. “The Department does not require agencies to use student surveys, and ACICS does not specify a minimum number of surveys that must be returned.”
There were other signs of trouble with students too. Over the course of the two reviews, no students had issues with their studies or had withdrawn from the university. Students also didn’t have records of prior education that had been verified. Daggett said all of these findings should have been, “red flags calling into question the existence of a legitimate student population.”
More broadly, Daggett said ACICS had had several years to bring itself into compliance with the department’s standards and never did so.
For its part, ACICS called the department’s overall findings ahead of the review, “extremely deflating and frustrating,” and that it would challenge the recommendation.
Michelle Edwards, the president and CEO of ACICS, also said in her opening remarks that the agency was being held to unfair standards. And she mentioned the Inspector general’s report as evidence for her claim.
Edwards said repeatedly the Education Department’s review overstepped its boundaries. Specifically, related to Reagan, she raised two separate site visits as evidence that the agency was doing its job.
“I ask you that you conclude that the evidence presented by the department staff in their final report does not support its termination recognition,” Edwards said.
Claude Presnell, a member of the committee and president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, questioned if the accreditor had been thorough in its site visits. Specifically, he asked how could the agency visit Reagan National University in late 2019 without seeing signs that it would close just months later.
“An abrupt closure of an institution, you don’t think that speaks to your capacity as an accreditor?” Presnell asked.
In response, Edwards said the college had voluntarily withdrawn from the accreditation process and that the agency wouldn’t have a way to know that Reagan had closed. She also said during the meeting that at an October 2019 site visit, ACICS staff had found evidence of a “functioning institution.” Edwards could not say why the college then closed just a few months later.
Edwards had also repeatedly attempted to dismiss USA TODAY’s reporting as sensationalist though she didn’t mention specifics. Presnell said the agency’s findings matched what appeared in the initial USA TODAY investigation.
Ultimately, members of the panel voted 11 to 1 to strip the agency of its federal recognition. Several of the members said they voted yes, but that they were worried about the administrative processes used by the department. And the same members said they hoped the level of rigor applied to ACICS would also be applied to other accreditors in the private and public sectors.
Though the committee recommended that ACICS lose its recognition, there are still more bureaucratic hurdles to clear. A senior department official now has 90 days to weigh in on the decision. And if that person does decide to revoke the accreditor’s standing, ACICS could still appeal to the newly confirmed Education Secretary, Miguel Cardona. If and when ACICS does lose its federal recognition, the dozens of schools it currently accredits will have 18 months to seek out a new accreditor.
Argus Leader reporter Shelly Conlon contributed to this report.