At its essence, a college accreditor ensures that the schools receiving federal financial aid dollars are providing an education to students that can lead to a good jobs that help pay those student loan bills.
It should go without saying any college approved should exist. But the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools seemed to have missed that memo when they accredited Reagan National University, a college that appeared to lack faculty or students, a USA TODAY network investigation found.
Now, a report released late Friday night from the Education Department recommends the federal government terminate its recognition of the accreditor.
“The agency failed to demonstrate that it has competent and knowledgeable individuals,” the report read, “qualified by education and experience in their own right and trained by the agency on their responsibilities, as appropriate for their roles, regarding the agency’s standards, policies, and procedures.”
The recommendation still needs approval from a senior department official. Such a move would be in line with plans under President Joe Biden’s administration to hold for-profit colleges — the type mostly commonly accredited by ACICS — under closer scrutiny.
Vice President Kamala Harris, as California’s attorney general, sued Corinthian Colleges for false advertising and misrepresenting itself to students. ACICS was also Corinthians’ accreditor.
USA TODAY and the Argus Leader in South Dakota, found no evidence last February 2020 that Reagan National University in Sioux Falls was teaching students. Several important links on its website were broken. Its administrators seldom answered phone calls, or they hung up immediately when a reporter identified himself. Its building was empty both when a reporter visited and when an investigator for ACICS dropped by the campus for a spot check.
At the time, former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said she was unhappy with USA TODAY’s findings and that the department would launch a probe. The newly released report specifically mentions ACICS’ handling of Reagan National University as well as its reviews of two other universities.
The Reagan approval, though, is just the latest debacle for the struggling accreditor. The federal government had already tried to strip the agency of its power in 2016 following the high-profile collapse of several for-profit colleges ACICS had approved, including ITT Tech and Corinthian Colleges. But after a federal court decision reopened the issue, the department under then-President Donald Trump reinstated ACICS in 2018.
Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, had previously called for the closure of the ACICS, and he said he supported the department’s recommendation. The committee had also been investigating the accreditor.
“History demonstrates that when predatory institutions are given the legitimacy of accreditation, they use it to collect billions of dollars in federal student aid while denying students the education they deserve,” he said. “Revoking ACICS’ recognition will protect students across the country, including many service members and veterans, from schools that routinely leave students with crippling debt, non-transferrable credits, and no degree.”
A separate advisory committee made up mostly of current and retired higher education leaders will review the findings and make a recommendation to the department. And the recommendation for termination would still need to be approved by a senior department official. ACICS also could appeal the decision as it did in 2016.
If approved, termination would mean the 73 main and branch colleges currently accredited by the institution would need to find a new accreditor if they want to continue to receive federal money.
Federal investigations have not prevented the accreditor from adding new members. ACICS had granted “initial accreditation” in December to a handful of colleges, while renewing the status for several others. They’re considering several more at the meeting scheduled for May.
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