SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Reagan National University was supposed to be a place of higher learning, but it was unclear how it awarded degrees. By all appearances, at present, it has no students, no faculty and no classrooms.
An agency meant to serve as a gatekeeper for federal money gave the university approval to operate anyway.
That accrediting agency, financially troubled and losing members fast, exists mainly because it was saved by the Education Department in 2018.
Accreditation might be the driest part of higher education, but these independent groups have huge importance: If they approve a college, the government agrees to give federal grants and loans to the students there.
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 court decision, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Donald Trump's administration reinstated the accrediting agency. By that point, it had lost dozens of colleges and their membership fees. It needed new members, and fast.
The decision in 2017 to approve Reagan National University as a viable college – one that today lacks the discernible hallmarks of higher learning – calls into question ACICS’ ability to hold colleges accountable for the education they’re supposed to provide.
Empty office suites, faculty who taught elsewhere
When USA TODAY started investigating Reagan last month, myriad issues appeared.
Links on the college’s website to register for classes led to 404 error pages. No students or graduates could be found on LinkedIn or Facebook.
The college’s only appearance on Twitter: Two people posted a picture of a Ghanaian politician receiving an honorary degree from the college. The official had been accused of having a fake doctoral degree by an electoral commission in Ghana, although he denied it.
The Reagan National University (https://t.co/UVsDTGAWso) on the 5th Of September 2019, conferred Dr. Hassan Ayariga with a honorary Doctor of humane Letters in Washington DC U.S.A. The event was graced with families and Friends from within Virginia and Washington.pic.twitter.com/8JfPyJdkeB— Hon. Donald Brown Dzameshie (@DzamchezDonaldo)September 6, 2019
The faculty were difficult to locate. USA TODAY contacted several people with the same names and education credentials as those listed as faculty on the university’s website. Four of them taught at different universities and said they had never worked at Reagan. Many listed were entirely absent from the internet, lacking personal websites and LinkedIn profiles – common features for academics.
The university’s president – Harold Harris, per the school’s website – was similarly invisible. University presidents often serve as an institution’s public face. The only face on Reagan National’s site was the institution’s namesake U.S. president. The president of the university on the South Dakota business license was listed as “Xuanhua Fan.”
Trying to reach the president, or anyone associated with the university, a reporter called the number listed on the school’s website. Someone answered by saying, “Reagan National University” but said they were not interested in an interview.
Then they hung up.
Twice, on Jan. 29 and Feb. 12, a reporter visited the listed addresses for Reagan National University in Sioux Falls. In one location, the doors were locked, and the office suite was dark. Both had signs bearing the school's name. At another location, the suite was mostly empty, save for some insulation scattered on the floor and a shop vacuum.
Emails sent to the school were not returned. Days before USA TODAY published this investigation, the university took down its website.
How did Reagan get accredited?
ACICS has accredited 63 institutions, mostly for-profit universities that offer less-than-four-year degree programs or certificates. Those institutions’ focuses range from veterinary care to massage therapy to flight schools. Some even have international locations.
The agency’s members in 2016 numbered 290.
Critics of the agency have warned the pressure to add members could lead ACICS to accredit low-performing institutions.
It took a USA TODAY reporter a few hours to find that Reagan National does not appear to be functioning at present.
When approving schools, ACICS officials can take nine to 18 months reviewing the university. The process includes multiple site visits, dozens of documents to review and even a daylong initial accreditation workshop to learn more about ACICS' rules, which costs a mandatory $1,000. Accreditors review faculty lists and curriculum. Typically, when a university receives approval from an accreditor, classes are already underway.
USA TODAY's investigation of Reagan National University started in late January. It’s unclear how long the university had been operating this way, apparently without students or faculty. ACICS said Reagan had met its standards during the accreditation process but declined to say specifically how it had verified the college had students and faculty.
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.
“ACICS Accreditation Criteria does not allow for the awarding of an initial grant or new grant of accreditation unless ALL standards have been met,” Edwards wrote.
In January 2019, the agency sent a letter informing Reagan of a new problem. None of the university’s graduates appeared to have gotten jobs.
“The campus-level placement rate of 0% is materially below the Council Standard of 60%,” ACICS wrote in a letter posted on a federal database.
The agency directed Reagan to “show cause” why its accreditation should not be withdrawn. ACICS' policy allowed some schools more time to show their graduates had found jobs, Edwards said. That was what happened with Reagan in this case, she said, and the show-cause order was lifted in May.
On Dec. 23, the accrediting body sent another warning letter, which was in response to a site visit, Edwards said.
This time, accreditors raised concerns about the language in a course catalog and the university’s grading system. It hinted at more existential issues, such as a lack of evidence of a qualified person to run the business programs. The computer science program didn't have the materials necessary to teach. “For example, there was no network server, router, managed switch, or a mini-computer server, equipment necessary to build a mini-computer.” That was a requirement for one of the university’s courses.
The agency ordered the university to prove why it should keep its accreditation and laid out a 15-point plan to remedy the problems. Officials were instructed to create a plan to help students finish their studies or receive refunds if the college were to close.
“ACICS takes this matter very seriously,” Edwards told USA TODAY in an email last week. “The Council is obligated to not only follow the procedures outlined in the (accreditation) Criteria, but also to take adverse action against any institution that fails to come into compliance.”
Reagan had until Friday to respond to the accreditor. Its accreditation was scheduled to be reviewed at an ACICS meeting in April.
Saturday, after USA TODAY’s calls and emails and after USA TODAY requested comment from ACICS and the Department of Education, Reagan National University withdrew from accreditation. When asked if the withdrawal had to do with the questions raised in USA TODAY's investigation, Edwards declined to answer.
"We are unable to share any information regarding the deliberative process of responding to at risk institutions," she said in an email.
Ties to a suspected 'visa mill'
At first glance, the ACICS correspondence with Reagan appears to be a purposeful response to a struggling school, said Antoinette Flores, an accreditation expert at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
But the correspondence doesn’t address the apparent absence of faculty and students that USA TODAY uncovered this winter.
“You accredited this institution. How did you miss this?” Flores said.
That Reagan sought ACICS approval in 2017, when its future as an accreditor was unclear, should also raise questions, she said. The Department of Education recognizes many groups that can accredit colleges, and universities sometimes have multiple options to choose from. Some groups may have higher standards than others
“I don't think this bodes well for them,” she said of ACICS. “They had said that they're turning themselves around.”
When the accrediting body faced closure in 2016, some of its colleges found new accreditors.
The ones that were left with ACICS, said Michael Itzkowitz, a senior fellow who studies higher education at Third Way, a left-leaning think tank, probably couldn't find accreditation elsewhere.
“They’re the bottom of the barrel,” he said.
Warning letters from ACICS give an idea of the troubles at some of its universities. One university, the accreditors said, appeared to be inappropriately operating a campus in Iraq. Another college had failed to provide evidence of interactions between students and professors in online courses.
Reagan National has connections to a different kind of troubled institution, via its ties to the University of Northern Virginia.
In 2011, federal immigration officials raided UNVA, threatening to suspend the college’s ability to accept foreign students. The suspicion: that Northern Virginia was a “visa mill,” a college accused of peddling a chance to live in the USA rather than offering a meaningful education.
The Virginia government closed Northern Virginia in 2013 because it wasn’t accredited. It resurfaced the same year with a South Dakota address – the same one Reagan National used on business filings, plus the same agent, Xianhua Fan, spelled slightly differently from the name listed for Reagan National's president.
In some ways, South Dakota was the ideal place for Reagan. The state has among the laxest rules for colleges in the country. State officials merely ask colleges whether an accrediting group has approved them – they don't independently hold universities accountable.
“We accept people’s answers on good faith," said Emily Kerr, who runs the division of business services in the Secretary of State's Office.
Did Reagan National’s creators have a similar immigration-related motive as the one suspected at Northern Virginia?
In a 2018 letter to ACICS, one of the people listed as Reagan National’s president, Harold Harris, wrote to ACICS seeking help in securing a .edu domain. The reason?
“The .edu designation is important to us as it shows the world we are an accredited institution approved by the Department of Education,” Harris wrote in a letter stored on the Department of Education’s website. Having the department's signoff would help the university apply for the program that issues visas to foreign students, he said.
But Reagan National was never part of the student visa program, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman told USA TODAY.
Education Department stands by accreditor
Even though DeVos’ department saved ACICS, the accreditor has been under scrutiny from education officials related to its financial health and its vetting process.
One ACICS-accredited university was accused of grade inflation: Virginia International University, which now goes by Fairfax University of America. The Education Department has questioned how thoroughly ACICS reviewed the files submitted by San Diego University for Integrative Studies.
The Education Department isn’t the only agency to raise concerns about ACICS. In December – before ACICS issued its latest warning to Reagan National – ACICS had a run-in with the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, an influential group of universities that set their own standards for college accreditation. The council notified ACICS on Dec. 16 that it would deny its recognition because it was out of compliance in nine areas.
The accreditor responded that CHEA's standards were unclear.
Lacking CHEA recognition, Flores said, may make it harder for students at ACICS-approved schools to transfer their credits if they need to.
Plus, the Education Department’s decision to save the accrediting agency had been partially influenced by the fact that ACICS already had CHEA's signoff.
For now, the Education Department is standing by ACICS.
"The Department expects all accreditors to hold schools accountable to their accreditation standards, and if they don’t, we will hold the accreditors themselves accountable," spokeswoman Angela Morabito said in a statement. "Without the Department conducting an independent investigation of the school, it appears that ACICS followed proper procedure, applied the appropriate sanctions, and the school is no longer accredited."
ACICS’ recognition is in part a matter of philosophy for DeVos.
The education secretary wants to cut back the rules governing accreditation. Fewer regulations could allow colleges to implement training programs swiftly to fill holes in the workforce, she said – 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.
As ACICS’ problems mount, so will the pressure for the department to change its mind – and to oversee accrediting bodies more carefully.
"It's another complete failure of the triad: of the state, of the Department of Education, of the agency itself," Flores said. "It's a really big deal."
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.