Betsy DeVos Is Sabotaging the Education Department’s Investigation of For-Profit Colleges

DeVos just hired several of the people who worked at the institutions under investigation by her agency

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr Creative Commmons

The Education Department significantly scaled back a special team investigating abuses by for-profit colleges, The New York Times reported, and Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, has hired several of the people who were formerly employed at the very for-profit colleges under investigation.

"The unwinding of the team has effectively killed investigations into possibly fraudulent activities at several large for-profit colleges," according to the Times.

The original investigative unit was created by former president Barack Obama's administration in 2016 to look into advertising, recruitment practices and job placement claims at several for-profit institutions, like DeVry Education Group. Student complaints echoed those of the collapsed for-profit Corinthian Colleges — pointing to widespread fraud, predatory activities and gross misrepresentation of enrollment benefits at for-profit colleges.

DeVos' newly reconfigured team, which under President Obama included more than a dozen lawyers and investigators, has now been stripped down to three — led by the former dean of DeVry.

"Their mission has been scaled back to focus on processing student loan forgiveness applications and looking at smaller compliance cases, said the current and former employees, including former members of the team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from the department," the Times reported.

Early last year, the investigation into DeVry was stopped, and a few months later, DeVos hired former DeVry dean, Julian Schmoke, as the investigative team’s supervisor. The for-profit behemoth settled two lawsuits in 2016, one with the Federal Trade Commission for misleading students and one with the Education Department for fraudulent claims about graduation success rates.

Investigations into two other large for-profit colleges, Bridgepoint Education and Career Education Corporation, were soon halted. Then former employees of those institutions, Robert S. Eitel, Diane Auer Jones and Carlos G. Muñiz, were hired by DeVos.

A spokeswoman for the Education Department told the Times that "conducting investigations is but one way the investigations team contributes to the department’s broad effort to provide oversight." She added that the new employees from the for-profit education industry had not influenced the investigative unit’s task.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., pointed out, however, that the marginalization of the investigative unit is just one of many of DeVos' decisions to roll back Obama-era regulations that are meant to protect students from the for-profit college industry.

"Secretary DeVos has filled the department with for-profit college hacks who only care about making sham schools rich and shutting down investigations into fraud," Warren told the Times.

Some of the for-profit colleges which came under investigation, like Bridgepoint, have deep ties to the Trump administration. Bridgepoint is a former client of Mercedes Schlapp, director of strategic communications at the White House. The consulting and lobbying firm, Cove Strategies, which she founded with her husband Matt Schlapp, worked with Bridgepoint and the school is still a Cove client. "Bridgepoint and other online institutions were persecuted by President Obama’s administration because they dared to bring innovation to the education market," Matt Schlapp told the Times in an email. "I believe educational innovation and disruption are a fight worth having and it matches the President’s agenda of rolling back the excess of the Obama regulatory stranglehold."

The Education Department spokeswoman told the Times that the department's new mission is "focused on weeding out bad actors" across institutions of higher education, "not capriciously targeting schools based on their tax status."

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Rachel Leah reports for Salon.