'A big concern': After we couldn't find students or faculty at college, agency scrambled to crack down

Written by on October 28, 2020


Betsy DeVos launches investigation after USA TODAY report confirmed an accredited school, known as Reagan Nationwide College, had no school or college students. USA TODAY

The door was locked. The person had knocked, however nobody within the South Dakota enterprise park answered. 

The customer was on the lookout for Reagan Nationwide College, accredited as a small, for-profit school working in Sioux Falls. 

However he couldn’t discover something aside from an structure agency in this principally empty constructing, he later mentioned in a memo to colleagues. The person from the Accrediting Council for Impartial Faculties and Faculties regarded up the college and dialed a quantity on its web site. 

“We’re not anticipating anybody from ACICS,” mentioned Adam Yang, listed on the college’s web site as its dean, who answered the decision. Everybody had gotten sick, Yang mentioned, and the college had given all of them two weeks off — weeks earlier than the coronavirus would sweep the U.S. and interrupt colleges around the country.

Actually, a USA TODAY investigation last winter into Reagan National had discovered no proof of scholars or school on the school in any respect, though the establishment was permitted to function by an accrediting company sanctioned by U.S. Training Secretary Betsy DeVos. 

Faculties that fail to fulfill accrediting requirements shouldn’t be permitted to function and obtain federal cash — and the federal government counts on accreditors to watch colleges and guarantee compliance.

However new emails and paperwork obtained by USA TODAY present the depth of ACICS’ battle to take action with Reagan Nationwide. The stumbles name into query the accreditor’s skill to guard college students and safeguard taxpayer cash and have prompted federal investigations that might as soon as once more deliver the DeVos-approved group to the verge of being shut down.   

When faculties shut:Thousands can be left without a degree. Here’s how to keep it from happening to you.

Accreditors are supposed to make sure faculties are offering a legitimate education to students that can lead to long-term employment. Faculties they approve can entry taxpayer cash by way of scholar loans and grants. ACICS already had a checkered historical past, having OK’d a number of high-profile faculties that closed instantly.

The brand new paperwork present that regardless of Reagan Nationwide’s struggles to fulfill ACICS’ accreditation requirements, the governing physique didn’t adequately monitor modifications within the school’s operations. Its interventions, such because the shock go to, got here after a USA TODAY reporter inquired with ACICS about damaged hyperlinks on the varsity’s web site and an empty campus. All of that, emails present, got here as a shock to the accreditor.

ACICS didn’t reply to a number of requests for remark for this story.

A number of days earlier than USA TODAY printed its preliminary investigation, Reagan withdrew from accreditation. Nobody from the school may very well be reached for this story.

The Education Department later launched an investigation into the accreditor’s approval of the college. The division mentioned it was nonetheless reviewing paperwork from ACICS and doesn’t touch upon present investigations. 

Angela Morabito, a division spokeswomen, mentioned the company had not too long ago launched new guidelines meant to guard college students from the unexpected closure of their college. “This new rule will safeguard college students by paving the best way for them to proceed studying at one other establishment with minimal interruption to their schooling,” Morabito mentioned.  

The Home Committee on Training and Labor additionally began investigating ACICS, acquiring the emails and paperwork after which releasing them to USA TODAY. The complete final result of the investigation stays pending. 

The chair of the Home committee, Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, in an April letter urged DeVos to rescind the federal authorities’s recognition of the accreditor. 

The letter additionally talked about the accreditor’s earlier failures. A number of of the big for-profit faculties it had accredited, like ITT Tech or Corinthian Colleges, closed instantly in recent times, leaving hundreds of scholars with little to show for years of time and thousands of dollars they’d spent on an schooling. President Barack Obama’s Training Division had stripped the accreditor of its energy in 2016. However after a federal court docket resolution reopened the problem, the division, now a part of President Donald Trump’s administration, reinstated the accrediting company.

“ACICS has continued to display that it’s unable to fulfill fundamental accreditation requirements and that it’s incapable of performing to guard college students from low-quality predatory establishments,” Scott mentioned within the letter dated April 1. “Consequently, ACICS’s inaction has value taxpayers a whole lot of tens of millions of {dollars}.” 

A nugatory diploma? DeVos pushed changes to rules for which colleges stay open, close

‘Everyone seems to be sick’

Over the course of some days final winter, USA TODAY reporters found major shortcomings at Reagan National University. The school actively was accredited, however web site hyperlinks to scholar registration or admissions did not work. Reporters could not discover any document of the listed school members or the president of the college exterior of the school’s web site. And a reporter visited the campus a number of instances and located no school members or college students.

Emails present ACICS, charged with monitoring the varsity, was unaware the school lacked these hallmarks of an working college. 

Alerted by USA TODAY’s questions on Feb. 3, members of ACICS emailed forwards and backwards about the most effective plan of action, given the “urgency of the scenario.” 

One of many workers members, emails present, visited the college’s web site and observed the damaged hyperlinks USA TODAY reporters had discovered days earlier.

“That’s an enormous concern,” mentioned Michelle Bonocore, the director of institutional compliance.

ACICS discovered somebody to go to the campus on Saturday, Feb. 8, though the particular person just isn’t named. On the accreditor’s final go to in December 2019, there have been “restricted college students on campus taking courses within the two school rooms,” workers emails indicated. However the course schedulesuggested the weekend is likely to be a very good time to go to “to make sure there are college students at school.” 

Visits to distressed school campuses are a part of an accreditor’s job. The company’s stamp of approval signifies a school is ready to provide college students a legit schooling — at any given time. Catching shortcomings, like a scarcity of school or college students, ought to occur in actual time.

When an accreditor fails to do its job, faculties can mislead college students into making use of for, enrolling in and even paying for packages that do not result in jobs. In some circumstances, faculties have even pocketed federal monetary assist cash they should not have been allowed to entry. 

When ACICS lastly despatched somebody to go to Reagan, they discovered an empty campus. “So there aren’t any college students at school in the present day that I could observe and communicate to?” the consultant requested whereas on the telephone with Yang.

That was right, Yang mentioned. 

Was there anybody the accreditor might communicate to? 

“Everyone seems to be sick,” Yang mentioned once more. “Nobody shall be on campus for 2 weeks.” 

Years of points in school

Reagan had struggled to fulfill ACICS’s benchmarks ever because it was first accredited in 2017. Michelle Edwards, the CEO of ACICS, advised USA TODAY in February that the establishment initially failed to fulfill a number of the requirements for accreditation, however later did. She declined to elaborate. 

Then, in January 2019, the college had a problem with its job placement charges —particularly, none of its graduates discovered regular work. The school was given extra time by the accreditor to assist place its college students in jobs.

By December 2019, the accreditor dinged the college once more for points associated to its grading system, course catalog and a scarcity of classroom supplies. With out an applicable response by Feb. 14, the college was warned it might lose its federally-approved standing.

However Reagan continued to function. USA TODAY was unable to find out when the school reached its present state — an obvious lack of school or college students, a damaged web site and empty school rooms. However paperwork present ACICS did not discover. (When requested in February if ACICS had verified that college students have been on the school, Edwards mentioned solely that the school had been in compliance when it was accredited. Edwards didn’t reply to questions for this story.) 

After USA TODAY’s inquiries in early February, the accreditor ramped up its oversight. 

Two days after the shock go to, emails present, ACICS despatched a letter to Harold Harris, listed on the college’s web site as its president. The go to confirmed “there was no proof of educational exercise or administrative operations,” ACICS mentioned. 

For the college to maintain its approval standing, it must present ACICS a listing of its college students and college and their contact info. It additionally wanted to indicate college students had been given sufficient discover in regards to the two-week break and that the college had plans to make up the misplaced educational time. 

Lastly, ACICS needed to know the way Reagan officers meant to speak with college students for the reason that web site was down. 

USA TODAY was unable to find out if the college responded. Based on ACICS’s web site, Reagan withdrew from the accrediting physique on Feb. 8, the identical day of the shock on-site go to. 

Per week later, USA TODAY printed its investigation into the accreditor’s oversight of the college. Edwards, the company’s CEO and president, didn’t point out the location go to in response to the newspaper’s questions for that story. As a substitute, she mentioned in an e mail that ACICS took the matter “severely” and declined to share particulars about “the deliberative technique of responding to in danger establishments.”  

The federal response to ACICS and Reagan initially seemed to be swift. 

DeVos in a February congressional listening to mentioned she was “not completely satisfied” to examine ACICS’ approval of the college. The Division of Training launched an investigation, however few particulars have been launched about that inquiry. 

The questionable approval of Reagan put ACICS’s earlier failures on show once more. One other controversy — say, the accreditation of a college that appeared to lack college students or school — may very well be massively damaging for the company. 

An advisory committee that offers with accreditation was slated to debate ACICS in July, however that merchandise was pulled from the agenda. 

Failures value taxpayers

Reagan Nationwide College is not listed as a tenant at its outdated handle within the Sioux Falls workplace park. The school’s web site has been scrubbed from the web, and its earlier telephone quantity apparently is disconnected. ACICS, although, continues to approve new establishments. 

Within the final yr, it accredited one new university and renewed the standing of several others. It additionally issued warnings to other colleges, for causes starting from improperly maintained scholar data to unclear tips for issuing grants. One campus for a time was positioned on elevated monitoring for working an unauthorized campus in Iraq. 

And the accreditor is slated to think about approving or renewing the accreditation of 13 universities come December. 

Extra establishments imply extra money for the struggling group. As of 2016, the group had 290 members, however now that quantity stands just a little above 60. Critics have mentioned the strained funds of the group could lead on it to tackle universities that it will possibly’t adequately monitor. 

That would imply extra college students are liable to being taken benefit of by predatory faculties, losing money and time on levels they could by no means obtain. And when a fraudulent establishment closes, the federal government usually forgives its college students’ federal loans — costing taxpayers cash. What’s extra, beneath DeVos, many of the rules around accreditation have been loosened, which might make it more durable to trace failing packages. 

If one other establishment folds, which will imply taxpayers find yourself footing the invoice for the accreditor’s failure, once more.

Contributing: Shelly Conlon, The Argus Chief 

Learn or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/information/schooling/2020/10/28/college-accreditation-acics-department-education-betsy-devos-south-dakota/5978227002/

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