Obama closed an agency that accredited a 'university' with no faculty or students. Then Betsy DeVos saved it
If you have never heard of Reagan National University, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, you’re not alone. But like many small colleges you’ve never heard of, this one boasted (at least until this month) full accreditation as sanctioned by the federal government.
There’s just one small problem.
By all appearances, at present it has no students, no faculty and no classrooms.
As an investigation for USA Today by Chris Quintana and Shelly Conlon found, this institution of higher learning was accredited by the Department of Education under the auspices of Trump-appointed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Or more precisely, it was accredited by an “approved” and sanctioned agency of DOE with a track record so dismal that, back in the good old days (known as the “Obama administration”) when the federal government was actually being run by competent people who worked for the interests of American ciitizens, it had been summarily shuttered and put out to pasture.
The agency in question, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges & Schools, has a history of approving questionable colleges, with devastating consequences. It accredited ITT Tech, Corinthian Colleges and Brightwood College, massive for-profit universities whose sudden closures last decade left thousands of students without degrees and undermined the value of the education of those who did graduate. Those closures led President Barack Obama’s Education Department to strip ACICS’ powers in 2016.
After a Federal Judge ruled that the Obama Administration had failed to consider a substantial number of documents that ACICS had submitted to appeal its closure, DOE was ordered to reconsider its decision, which it did. DOE career employees again found that ACICS failed to meet appropriate standards in its accreditation process.
But by then Trump acolyte and billionaire-by-marriage Betsy DeVos, who, following standard Trump-appointee procedure, was proceeding to reverse every single action taken by the prior administration, no matter how sensible or helpful to the American people, had begun to remake the Department. DeVos reinstated the ACICS agency despite its horrid past record of promoting colleges that exist solely to rip off American students (usually poorer ones and disproportionately students of color).
Since its short-lived disbandment, the agency had lost many colleges as “members” and, as Quintana and Conlon note, lost their “membership fees” as well. It needed money, and fast. So, apparently it was time for some quick calls to those “institutes of higher learning” out there.
Accreditation is the key to obtaining federal grant and loan money for students who want to attend college. Of course, that money then goes straight to the “accredited” college. But as USA Today found out, “Reagan National University” is a very strange college. To begin with, when the reporters attempted to learn more about the college itself, its website links were all dead. They still are.
Adding further to the mystery, “[n]o students or graduates could be found on LinkedIn or Facebook.”
When USA Today tried to contact faculty from this so-called college, they could find none. People whose names were listed on the “college’s” website swore they’d never heard of or taught at Reagan National University. Other names had absolutely no internet history, something quite unusual for academics. Phone calls to the University ended in curtly disconnected lines. Attempts to physically visit the school were similarly unavailing, yielding locked offices. Peering through the window, a vacuum cleaner and some insulation were visible.
As the USA Today investigation found, ACICS specializes in accrediting “for profit” colleges, the same ones notorious for ripping off students with phony promises of inflated job prospects and providing worthless degrees. But since the Obama administration shut it down, its members have dwindled from 290 in 2016 to 63 at present. ACICS told USA Today that Reagan had somehow met its stringent accreditation standards, but it refused to provide any details on how that may have occurred.
Michelle Edwards, CEO and president of ACICS, defended the council’s accreditation process in emails this month to USA TODAY. ACICS first accredited Reagan in 2017, though Edwards said the university had to address some areas where it was initially out of compliance. She declined to say what those areas were.
But hey, ACICS pulled out all the stops to get Reagan National U. up to snuff! In January 2019, it sent an (apparently) sternly worded letter to its accredited so-called college, informing Reagan that its job placement rate was a whopping 0%. Of course, the agency’s standard procedure provided a window of time for an institution to “show cause” why its accreditation should not be pulled in such an instance. For Reagan, that “window” expired in May, 2019. According to the agency CEO, “Reagan” provided some sort of satisfactory information to ACICS (we’re not told what that was), and the “show cause” order was lifted.
But in December, 2019, ACICS really laid the hammer down.
This time accreditors raised concerns about the language in a course catalog and the university’s grading system. It also hinted at more existential issues, such as a lack of evidence of a qualified person to run the business programs. And the computer science program didn't have the materials necessary to teach.
It’s not clear who ACICS was talking to at “Reagan,” if they were actually talking to anyone at all. This entire shoddy episode reeks of either purposeful negligence or something worse. As Antoinette Flores, with the Center for American Progress who studies accreditation asks, how could this agency possibly have accredited a “school” with no faculty and no students?: “You accredited this institution. How did you miss this?”
In February of 2020, while USA Today was conducting its investigation, “Reagan National University” voluntarily withdrew its accreditation.
The USA Today investigation found something that provides a clue to exactly what “Reagan National University” is. It seems that in 2011, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement visited another questionable institution, called the “University of Northern Virginia” on “suspicions” that it was operating to exploit the issuance of visas through legal loopholes for foreign visitors rather than acting as an actual educational institution. That university was shut down by the state of Virginia because of its lack of accreditation in 2013, but popped up again, listing an address in South Dakota—the same address used by “Reagan National” in its corporate filings. It even listed the name of its agent as “Xianhua Fan”, seemingly the same name as Reagan’s president (in its business filings spelled as “Xuanhua Fan,” although the official “website” listed president of the University was a fellow named “Harold Harris”).
South Dakota, as the authors of the USA Today article point out, is probably not the ideal place to go to college: “State officials merely ask colleges whether an accrediting group has approved them — they don't independently hold universities accountable.”
If it seems that all of this should have been obvious to ACICS, the agency DeVos stepped in to save, it should. The article describes the many criticisms and problems that agency has, including denial of recognition by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, a university-member body that sets stringent standards for accreditation.
But ultimately, as the article notes, this is all traceable back to DeVos and the Trump administration philosophy of rolling back every regulation in favor of business interests, no matter who is harmed in the process.
The education secretary wants to cut back the rules governing accreditation. Fewer regulations could allow colleges to implement new training programs swiftly to fill holes in the workforce, she says — an approach cheered by for-profit colleges like the ones accredited by ACICS.
Critics argue these rollbacks will make it easier for shoddy or predatory institutions to take advantage of students. They have pointed to the high-profile closures of several for-profit colleges over the past decade as a need for more regulations to protect students, rather than fewer.
What this all boils down to has nothing to do with learning or “education,” and everything to do with political campaign contributions from the “for-profit” college mill industry and lining the pockets of the investors that fund such scam schools. As noted by Jeff Bryant of the Campaign for America’s future,”The favors Trump and DeVos are granting to the for-profit college industry reflect the generosity of campaign contributions the sector has generally showered on Republicans, especially since the advent of the regulatory constrains issued in the Obama years.”
And whether those colleges actually have any faculty or students, or whether they even can provide degrees, is apparently not a major concern.