A year after a USA Today Network investigation found that an accredited university in South Dakota appeared to have no students or staff, a federal panel voted to remove the federal accreditation council for independent colleges and schools on Friday.
That recommendation could spell the end of the road for the troubled accreditor who previously made headlines for its role in accrediting ITT Tech and Corinthian colleges, two massive for-profit colleges that closed without much warning in the mid-2010s.
Accreditors operate independently from the federal government, but their approval by the Department of Education enables them to decide which colleges can access federal funds, including student loans or Pell Grants. The decision, taken by an 11-1 vote, was made after hours of discussion and review of hundreds of pages of documents verifying the accreditation or lack of colleges by the accrediter.
A senior department official will now make the final call about the future of ACICS and the agency may continue to appeal the decision. However, if the agency loses its accreditation powers, the nearly 60 ACICS-accredited institutes would have to find a new accreditor if they want to continue to access federal funds.
The review from Thursday was partly from USA TODAY investigation in February 2020 Reagan National University found that seemed to have no students or faculty. Important links on the website, like one signing up for courses, didn’t work either. And a reporter visited the campus twice and found no one there.
Only a few days before the planned publication of the story, the university withdrew from the accreditation process. ACICS announced TODAY to USA that it correctly followed its procedures. But history has also led to it open the education department his own request.
The Reagan Inquiry, however, was just one of several topics the committee considered Thursday. Various reviews looked at the agency’s financial health, dealings with two other universities, and general compliance reports. And of the four reports considered, all of which began under President Trump, in all of the cases, career officials at the Department of Education suggested that the agency lose its federal accreditor status.
The hour-long hearing of the advisory committee was just the last stop for the long-troubled accreditation body.
In 2016, the Obama-era Department of Education relocated to take power away from the agency. A federal court reopened the matter, however, and the Trump department re-established the agency in 2018.
In a recent report, the Inspector General of the Department found that the division was acting within its authority when reintroducing ACICS under DeVos. It also noted that the department failed to take into account “all relevant information” when reviewing the agency in 2016. That decision, according to the surveillance report, enabled ACICS to successfully challenge the division’s findings in court.
The Inspector General’s report ignored the findings of the other reports submitted to the committee on Thursday. Still, the panel delayed its decision from Thursday to Friday to give its members the opportunity to read the results.
Earlier this year Careers in the department recommended ACICS lose their authorization for accreditation because, among other things, they could not prove that they “have competent and knowledgeable persons who are qualified through training and experience”.
In the advisory session, the department made this case. (Much of the discussion centered around Reagan National University.)
For example, ACICS staff were visiting Reagan National University and were unable to “get, view, or rate teaching materials,” and students had no access to textbooks. However, according to Elizabeth Daggett, a career worker on the department’s accreditation group, the shortage of materials was not listed as a shortage. Daggett said this resulted in a lack of training and administration skills.
In another case, Daggett said the accreditor did not collect enough responses from students during his visits to Reagan. Only 6 of the 50 or so students answered a survey distributed by the accreditation team in 2017. And only 3 of the roughly 70 responded to another survey from 2019. However, ACICS said this was not a problem.
“The team ensures the polls are distributed, but cannot force students to respond,” they wrote in response. “The department doesn’t require agencies to use student surveys, and ACICS doesn’t set a minimum number of surveys that must be returned.”
There were other signs of problems with the students as well. During the course of the two reviews, no students had any problems with their studies or had withdrawn from university. Students also did not have verified records of previous education. Daggett said all of these findings should have been “red flags that question the existence of a legitimate student population.”
In a broader sense, Daggett said ACICS had had several years to align with the department’s standards and never did.
For his part, ACICS is called the overall pre-review department results “extremely drained and frustrating” and that this would call the recommendation into question.
Michelle Edwards, the President and CEO of ACICS, also said in her opening speech that the agency is subject to unfair standards. And she mentioned the Inspector General’s report as evidence of her claim.
Edwards has repeatedly said that the Department of Education’s review has exceeded its limits. In the case of Reagan in particular, she made two separate site visits to prove that the agency was doing its job.
“I ask you to conclude that the evidence presented by the department staff in their final report does not support the approval of the termination,” said Edwards.
Claude Presnell, committee member and president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, asked if the accreditor had conducted its site visits thoroughly. In particular, he asked how the agency could visit Reagan National University in late 2019 without seeing any signs that it would close just months later.
“An abrupt closure of an institution, don’t you think that speaks in favor of your ability as an accreditor?” Asked Presnell.
In response, Edwards said the college had voluntarily withdrawn from the accreditation process and the agency had no way of knowing that Reagan was closing. During the meeting, she also said that ACICS employees found evidence of a “functioning institution” during a site visit in October 2019. Edwards couldn’t say why the college closed just months later.
Edwards had also repeatedly tried to dismiss USA TODAY’s coverage as sensational, although it did not provide any details. Presnell said the agency’s findings were consistent with findings from USA TODAY’s initial investigation.
Ultimately, the members of the committee voted 11 to 1 in order to withdraw the agency’s recognition by the federal government. Some of the members said they voted yes but were concerned about the administrative processes used by the department. The same members hoped that the rigor applied to ACICS would also be applied to other accreditors in the private and public sectors.
While the committee has recommended that ACICS lose its recognition, there are other bureaucratic hurdles to overcome. A senior department official now has 90 days to consider the decision. And if that person decides to revoke the creditor’s reputation, ACICS could continue to appeal to the newly confirmed Minister of Education. Miguel Cardona. If ACICS loses state recognition, the dozen of schools it currently accredits will have 18 months to find a new accreditor.