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Education Accountability: When The Accreditation Agency Is Problematic


When you attend a college or university, you assume you've paid to attend a reputable institution that's been properly accredited. But what if the accreditation agency isn't in good standing? One such agency approved a slew of for-profit colleges that defrauded tens of thousands of students. It was shut down by the Obama administration, but two years ago, it was reinstated by the Department of Education, led by Secretary Betsy DeVos. USA Today reporter Chris Quintana and Shelley Conlon at the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls started investigating one of the colleges the agency approved, Reagan National University. Mr. Quintana joins us in our studio. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHRIS QUINTANA: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Could you recollect for us what you and your colleague discovered when you tried to find out if there is a Reagan National University?

QUINTANA: Yeah, I definitely can. I remember seeing the listing for Reagan on the accrediting body's website. And I started looking at the website, and I could just tell right away that it didn't seem right to me. There were a lot of broken links. It seemed out-of-date. There was a picture of Reagan on there that didn't seem like it had been approved by anyone. I looked at the faculty list, and rather than a normal list with, like, searchable text, it was just, like, an image. There was just a lot that was slightly off that prompted me to look a little bit deeper. And when my colleague Shelley Conlon actually went out and found that there wasn't anything there or - it's not that she didn't find anything.

SIMON: I mean, she went to what's shown on the website as the location.

QUINTANA: She did, and she found a closed door and a sign that said Reagan National University but didn't find any other evidence that there was a university there. So...

SIMON: A closed door - and nobody opened it and said, welcome to our beautiful campus.

QUINTANA: Correct, yes. And this was in an office building in Sioux Falls, S.D.

SIMON: Yeah. The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools lost their accreditation under the Obama administration.

QUINTANA: Right. They lost their ability to accredit other institutions, and this followed kind of the high-profile closures of several for-profit universities, including ITT Tech and Corinthian Colleges. So that was a pretty big deal in that a lot of students were left without a degree. And, you know, they had loan debt, and they had to figure out what they were going to do with that. And so the Obama Education Department made a decision to strip them of their accrediting power.

SIMON: Why were they reinstated under Secretary DeVos?

QUINTANA: So there was a court decision in which a judge suggested that perhaps the Obama department had erred in their judgment or overstepped. The DeVos department re-looked at the case and kind of reached a similar conclusion and decided that ACICS should have its accrediting power back.

SIMON: And somebody who is looking to further their education and increase their possibilities in life really needs to go to an accredited institution.

QUINTANA: It's generally considered the stamp of approval, yes. You are kind of taking matters into your own hands if you go to an unaccredited institution. But the idea behind the accredited institution is - it's met some governments standards, and, you know, if you go to an accredited institution, you can get federal funding in the form of Pell grants and student loans. And so it's supposed to be a mark of quality, and so for institutions that are credited that don't appear to meet these standards of quality, that is certainly troubling for the consumer.

SIMON: As we speak today, the website's been taken down.

QUINTANA: The website for Reagan National University has been taken down. It just shows a maintenance kind of disclaimer on it.

SIMON: USA Today education reporter Chris Quintana, thanks so much for being with us.

QUINTANA: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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