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 for-profit colleges under investigation. They now hold top positions in the education department, while "The unwinding of the team has effectively killed investigations into possibly fraudulent activities at several large for-profit colleges," according to the Times.
This article was originally published at Salon
The original investigative unit was created by the Barack Obama administration in 2016 to look into advertising, recruitment practices and job placement claims at several for-profit institutions, like DeVry Education Group. This was amid the collapse of the for-profit Corinthian Colleges. But student complaints echoed beyond the Corinthian institutions, and pointed to widespread fraud, predatory activities and gross misrepresentation of enrollment benefits, program offerings and job placements rates at for-profit colleges.
This team, which under President Obama included more than a dozen lawyers and investigators, has now been stripped down to three employees. "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 hiredformer DeVry dean, Julian Schmoke, as the investigative team’s supervisor. Investigations into two other large for-profit colleges, Bridgepoint Education and Career Education Corporation, were also halted. And former employees of these 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 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.
DeVry 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. But the investigative unit continued to look into other claims made by the institution.
Other for-profit colleges like Bridgepoint, which was under investigation, has deep ties to the 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 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."