The U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation after a USA TODAY report showed an accredited college apparently had no faculty or students.
Reagan National University, the college investigated by USA TODAY, was approved by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges & Schools. It has a history of approving several for-profit universities that suddenly closed, such as ITT Tech and Corinthian Colleges in the mid-2010s. The accreditor still operates mainly because it was saved by the Education Department in 2018 under Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Thursday, DeVos told a congressional committee she was "troubled" by USA TODAY's report and she launched an investigation as a result.
"I was not happy to read that," DeVos said of the USA TODAY story. "We have an investigation launched, and we're on it."
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., questioned DeVos about accreditor ACICS Thursday during a House appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Department of Education's 2021 budget request.
The Education Department kicked off its investigation on Monday with a letter sent to ACICS, which was obtained by USA TODAY.
"The article includes information that ACICS accredited RNU, which is alleged, based on research conducted by the journalists, to not be operational," wrote Herman Bounds, director of the department's accreditation group, referencing the USA TODAY investigation. "These allegations raise questions as to the effectiveness of the agency's evaluation and monitoring of its applicant and membership institutions."
Bounds asked the accrediting agency to provide Reagan's application for approval, communications between ACICS and the university and evidence of the agency's monitoring.
ACICS has until March 25 to respond. The agency didn't immediately respond Thursday to USA TODAY's request for comment.
An investigation by USA TODAY and the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, found no evidence of students, faculty members or classrooms at Reagan National University early this year, even though it was accredited by ACICS.
Attempts to interview anyone associated with the university were unsuccessful. A reporter who visited the college's listed addresses in Sioux Falls found only locked doors or empty rooms.
After reporters started asking questions, Reagan National University withdrew from accreditation. The college's web address, www.rnu.edu, takes users to a page that says the site is down for maintenance.
The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges & Schools first approved Reagan in 2017 and told USA TODAY the university had met its standards. In 2019, the agency raised concerns about the percentage of Reagan students who got jobs – zero, according to an ACICS letter. The college was given more time to comply, and the school eventually was taken off notice.
ACICS again raised concerns in December over a variety of areas at Reagan, including course catalog language, inadequate staffing and insufficient resources for some classes. The agency told USA TODAY it stood by its accrediting practices and vetting.
ACICS has a complicated history. Under President Barack Obama, the Education Department moved to strip the agency of its accrediting power in 2016.
After a federal court decision, DeVos and President Donald Trump's administration reinstated the accrediting agency in 2018. As recently as November, the department questioned the agency’s financial health and its vetting process.
DeVos has made it one of her priorities to roll back some of the federal regulations around accreditation. Her argument: Fewer regulations could allow colleges to create training programs quickly to fill holes in the workforce. Critics say cutting back the rules would make it easier for shoddy or predatory institutions to take advantage of students.
While DeVos was addressing questions from Congress, a top department official encouraged members of an advisory group on accreditation to avoid focusing on the news of the day.
“This is not a place to debate the merits of the most recent news article," said Diane Auer Jones, the principal deputy under secretary of education, in an apparent reference to the USA TODAY investigation.
Jones also said there was a process for members of the advisory committee to raise concerns about recent events and for the Education Department staff to respond to them.
The group Jones was addressing advises the Education Department on which accreditors it should or should not recognize. Its members are appointed by the Education Department and bipartisan lawmakers, and they include college presidents and accreditors.
Contributing: Erin Richards
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.