MarianSigler / Public domain

February 15, 2020; USA Today

Colleges these days face an avalanche of challenges—calls to pull endowments out of fossil fuels, reductions in government aid during the recession that have not returned. Some small colleges have even closed or merged. The last thing existing schools need is a lack of credibility in the public eye, and one bad accreditation agency can reflect on the others.

Reagan National University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was approved by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges & Schools (ACICS) in 2017. USA Today has investigated Reagan National for the last month. When reporters visited the two addresses listed for the university, they found a name on a sign, but the offices were dark, and one was mostly empty of furniture.

No graduates can be found for Reagan National, although there was a Twitter post in September of an honorary doctorate given to Hassan Ayariga, a politician from Ghana with questionable credentials. Names of faculty members were recorded who, when contacted, did not work for Reagan. Other names had no social media presence at all. Links on the website went to 404 error pages…and now the site is down completely.

ACICS was in financial trouble when the US Department of Education saved it in 2018. The Council numbers some dubious schools among its past accreditation work: ITT Tech, Corinthian Colleges, and Brightwood College. Thousands were left without degrees when those schools closed without warning, and the ones who did graduate had degrees with little value. During the Obama administration, in 2016, the US Department of Education stripped ACICS of its accreditation authority, but a favorable federal court decision allowed current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to restore ACICS, which had lost members and fees. Losing three-quarters of its 2016 members, most of the 63 institutions ACICS has left are for-profit, certificate programs, or less-than-four-year degree programs, which include massage therapy and veterinary care.

Michelle Edwards, CEO and president of ACICS, defended the council’s accreditation process in emails to USA Today. “ACICS Accreditation Criteria does not allow for the awarding of an initial grant or new grant of accreditation unless ALL standards have been met,” Edwards writes.

Accreditation involves several site visits and reviews of documents, faculty, and curriculum. Could there have been faculty at Reagan in 2017 that have since disappeared?

ACICS appears to have stepped back its support of Reagan National. A letter sent in January 2019 states that the placement rate for graduates is zero percent and says the school had to “show cause” why accreditation should not be withdrawn—but that order was lifted in May of last year. More recent issues involve the university’s grading system, a lack of qualified teachers in business, and the absence of any network server or routers to teach computer science. None of that communication stated there was no faculty present.

“You accredited this institution. How did you miss this?” Antoinette Flores, an accreditation expert from the Center for American Progress, asks.

ACICS offered the school a 15-point plan to continue accreditation. “ACICS takes this matter very seriously,” Edwards told USA Today. “The Council is obligated to not only follow the procedures outlined in the [accreditation] Criteria, but also to take adverse action against any institution that fails to come into compliance.” Reagan National withdrew from accreditation last week after USA Today’s calls and emails.

Why South Dakota? The state was likely chosen because it accepts forms as they are filled out, without independent confirmation. “We accept people’s answers on good faith,” said Emily Kerr, who runs the division of business services in the Secretary of State’s Office.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation, a group of universities that set standards for accreditation, notified ACICS in December that it would not recognize the agency which, it stated, was out of compliance in nine areas.

The Department of Education puts all responsibility for this mess on ACICS without mentioning what might have been in place just a couple of years ago that would allow Reagan National to become accredited.

“The Department expects all accreditors to hold schools accountable to their accreditation standards, and if they don’t, we will hold the accreditors themselves accountable,” spokesperson Angela Morabito said in a statement. “Without the Department conducting an independent investigation of the school, it appears that ACICS followed proper procedure, applied the appropriate sanctions, and the school is no longer accredited.”

DeVos has been working to roll back some rules for higher education institutions, saying colleges would be able to quickly implement programs for current workforce needs. For-profit schools would benefit if there were fewer hurdles. But universities do not benefit if looser rules lead to substandard education. Moreover, public universities are already positioned to do workforce training. There has been significant growth in community colleges to offer specific education to fit those changing needs, and four-year institutions, like those in New York’s SUNY system are responding as well. Considering the cost of higher education, the credibility of the institutions and the agencies that provide their accreditation ought to be paramount.—Marian Conway