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

The door was locked. The man had knocked, but no one in the South Dakota business park answered.

The visitor was looking for Reagan National University, accredited as a small, for-profit college operating in Sioux Falls.

But he couldn’t find anything other than an architecture firm in this mostly empty building, he later said in a memo to colleagues. The man from the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools looked up the university and dialed a number on its website.

“We are not expecting anyone from ACICS,” said Adam Yang, listed on the university's website as its dean, who answered the call. Everyone had gotten sick, Yang said, and the university had given them all two weeks off – weeks before the coronavirus would sweep the U.S. and interrupt colleges around the country.

In fact, a USA TODAY investigation last winter into Reagan National had found no evidence of students or faculty at the college at all, even though the institution was approved to operate by an accrediting agency sanctioned by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Colleges that fail to meet accrediting standards should not be approved to operate and receive federal money – and the government counts on accreditors to monitor schools and ensure compliance.

But new emails and documents obtained by USA TODAY show the depth of ACICS's struggle to do so with Reagan National. The stumbles call into question the accreditor's ability to protect students and safeguard taxpayer money and have prompted federal investigations that could once again bring the DeVos-approved group to the verge of being shut down.

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A sign for Reagan National University is posted outside one of two locked doors in the office building at 114 S. Main Ave on Wednesday, Jan. 29, in downtown Sioux Falls.

Accreditors are supposed to ensure colleges are offering a legitimate education to students that can lead to long-term employment. Colleges they approve can access taxpayer money via student loans and grants. ACICS already had a checkered history, having OK'd several high-profile colleges that closed suddenly.

The new documents show that despite Reagan National's struggles to meet ACICS's accreditation standards, the governing body did not adequately monitor changes in the college's operations. Its interventions, such as the surprise visit, came after a USA TODAY reporter inquired with ACICS about broken links on the school's website and an empty campus. All of that, emails show, came as a surprise to the accreditor.

ACICS did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

A few days before USA TODAY published its initial investigation, Reagan withdrew from accreditation. No one from the college could be reached for this story.

The Education Department later launched an investigation into the accreditor’s approval of the university. The department said it was still reviewing documents from ACICS and does not comment on current investigations.

Angela Morabito, a department spokeswoman, said the agency had recently introduced new rules meant to protect students from the unforeseen closure of their university. "This new rule will safeguard students by paving the way for them to continue learning at another institution with minimal interruption to their education," Morabito said.

The House Committee on Education and Labor also started investigating ACICS, obtaining the emails and documents and then releasing them to USA TODAY. The full outcome of the investigation remains pending.

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

The letter also mentioned the accreditor’s previous failures. Several of the large for-profit colleges it had accredited, like ITT Tech or Corinthian Colleges, closed unexpectedly in recent years, leaving thousands of students with little to show for years of time and thousands of dollars they'd spent on an education. President Barack Obama's Education Department had stripped the accreditor of its power in 2016. But after a federal court decision reopened the issue, the department, now part of President Donald Trump's administration, reinstated the accrediting agency.

“ACICS has continued to demonstrate that it is unable to meet basic accreditation standards and that it is incapable of acting to protect students from low-quality predatory institutions,” Scott said in the letter dated April 1. “As a result, ACICS’s inaction has cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.”

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'Everyone is sick'

Over the course of a few days last winter, USA TODAY reporters discovered major shortcomings at Reagan National University. The college actively was accredited, but website links to student registration or admissions didn't work. Reporters couldn't find any record of the listed faculty members or the president of the university outside of the college's website. And a reporter visited the campus multiple times and found no faculty members or students.

Emails show ACICS, charged with monitoring the school, was unaware the college lacked these hallmarks of an operating university.

Alerted by USA TODAY’s questions on Feb. 3, members of ACICS emailed back and forth about the best course of action, given the "urgency of the situation."

One of the staff members, emails show, visited the university’s website and noticed the broken links USA TODAY reporters had found days earlier.

A look at what used to be the homepage for Reagan National University, which listed its address in Sioux Falls, S.D. The web page prominently features the university's accreditation by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges & Schools.

“That’s a big concern,” said Michelle Bonocore, director of institutional compliance.

ACICS found someone to visit the campus on Saturday, Feb. 8, although the person is not named. On the accreditor’s last visit in December 2019, there were “limited students on campus taking classes in the two classrooms,” staff emails indicated. But the course schedule suggested the weekend might be a good time to visit "to ensure there are students in class."

Visits to troubled college campuses are part of an accreditor's job. The agency's stamp of approval indicates a college is able to offer students a legit education – at any given time. Catching shortcomings, like a lack of faculty or students, should happen in real time.

When an accreditor fails to do its job, colleges can mislead students into applying for, enrolling in and even paying for programs that don't lead to jobs. In some cases, colleges have even pocketed federal financial aid money they shouldn't have been allowed to access.

When ACICS finally sent someone to visit Reagan, they found an empty campus. “So there are no students in class today that I may observe and speak to?” the representative asked while on the phone with Yang.

That was correct, Yang said.

Was there anyone the accreditor could speak to?

“Everyone is sick,” Yang said again. “No one will be on campus for two weeks.”

Years of issues at college

Reagan had struggled to meet ACICS’s benchmarks ever since it was first accredited in 2017. Michelle Edwards, the CEO of ACICS, told USA TODAY in February that the institution initially failed to meet some of the standards for accreditation, but later it did. She declined to elaborate.

Then, in January 2019, the university had an issue with its job placement rates –namely, none of its graduates found steady work. The college was given more time by the accreditor to help place its students in jobs.

By December 2019, the accreditor dinged the university again for issues related to its grading system, course catalog and a lack of classroom materials. Without an appropriate response by Feb. 14, the university was warned it could lose its federally approved status.

But Reagan continued to operate. USA TODAY was unable to determine when the college reached its current state – an apparent lack of faculty or students, a broken website and empty classrooms. But documents show ACICS didn't notice. (When asked in February if ACICS had verified that students were at the college, Edwards said only that the college had been in compliance when it was accredited. Edwards did not respond to questions for this story.)

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

Two days after the surprise visit, emails show, ACICS sent a letter to Harold Harris, listed on the university's website as its president. The visit showed “there was no evidence of academic activity or administrative operations,” ACICS said.

For the university to keep its approval status, it would have to provide ACICS a list of its students and faculty and their contact information. It also needed to show students had been given enough notice about the two-week break and that the university had plans to make up the lost instructional time.

Finally, ACICS wanted to know how Reagan officials intended to communicate with students since the website was down.

USA TODAY was unable to determine if the university responded. According to ACICS’s website, Reagan withdrew from the accrediting body on Feb. 8, the same day of the surprise on-site visit.

A week later, USA TODAY published its investigation into the accreditor’s oversight of the university. Edwards, the agency’s CEO and president, didn’t mention the site visit in response to the newspaper’s questions for that story. Instead, she said in an email that ACICS took the matter “seriously” and declined to share details about “the deliberative process of responding to at risk institutions.”

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

DeVos in a February congressional hearing said she was “not happy” to read about ACICS’s approval of the university. The Department of Education launched an investigation, but few details have been released about that inquiry.

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The questionable approval of Reagan put ACICS’s previous failures on display again. Another controversy – say, the accreditation of a university that appeared to lack students or faculty – could be hugely damaging for the agency.

An advisory committee that deals with accreditation was scheduled to discuss ACICS in July, but that item was pulled from the agenda.

Failures cost taxpayers

Reagan National University is no longer listed as a tenant at its old address in the Sioux Falls office park. The college’s website has been scrubbed from the internet, and its previous phone number apparently is disconnected. ACICS, though, continues to approve new institutions.

In the past year, it accredited one new university and renewed the standing of several others. It also issued warnings to other colleges, for reasons ranging from improperly maintained student records to unclear guidelines for issuing grants. One campus for a time was placed on increased monitoring for operating an unauthorized campus in Iraq.

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

More institutions mean more money for the struggling organization. As of 2016, the group had 290 members, but now that number stands a little above 60. Critics have said the strained finances of the group could lead it to take on universities that it can’t adequately monitor.

That could mean more students are at risk of being taken advantage of by predatory colleges, wasting time and money on degrees they may never receive. And when a fraudulent institution closes, the government often forgives its students’ federal loans – costing taxpayers money. What’s more, under DeVos, many of the rules around accreditation have been loosened, which could make it harder to track failing programs.

If another institution folds, that may mean taxpayers end up footing the bill for the accreditor’s failure, again.

Contributing: Shelly Conlon, The Argus Leader

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Emails show scramble over college apparently without faculty, students