July 29, 2020

DeVos Advisory Panel Should Not Punish Accreditor Over Education Department’s Own Abuses

Today, I am one of the public commenters scheduled to address the Department of Education’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) regarding the Department’s effort to discipline one of its recognized college accreditors, Higher Learning Commission. Here, roughly, is what I plan to say:

In April 2018, two employees of Dream Center Education Holdings contacted me with evidence of improper conduct at the company, including that DCEH was stating on its website that the Colorado and Illinois Art Institutes remained accredited, when in fact HLC had declared the campuses in unaccredited candidate status and directed DCEH to communicate that change of status to students. I reported this and other misconduct in articles I published starting in May 2018 on my website, Republic Report.

Subsequent investigations by the House Education and Labor Committee and others have revealed that the Department of Education encouraged and concealed the Dream Center’s deceptions, and sought to justify them by purporting to make the campuses retroactively eligible for financial aid. Under Secretary Diane Auer Jones was a central player in these matters and then falsely testified to Congress that the schools were accredited all along, among other untrue statements. A report released yesterday by the House committee provides even more evidence of these Department abuses.

Instead of holding DCEH accountable or taking responsibility for its own misconduct, the Department decided to blame HLC for this debacle, an approach that has resulted in the charges you are considering today. But the record shows that HLC made clear from the outset to DCEH and the Department that the campuses were unaccredited, a decision HLC was entitled to make. DCEH and the Department did not initially press HLC to reverse its decision. Instead they let students be deceived, until the truth was exposed by whistleblowers. 

The subsequent ugly collapse of DCEH showed HLC was right to be wary of, and therefore declare in pre-accreditation status, this fledgling college operator, which proved itself to be incompetent, deceptive, financially irresponsible, and driven by conflicts of interest

Please don’t become a party to this dishonest and disgraceful action by the Department. 

You should be asking questions, including:

— Why is the Department’s action letter signed by Department aide Annmarie Weisman, rather than an official of the Department’s accreditation division? 

— Acting Under Secretary Jones, according to Ms. Weisman’s letter “has decided not to participate in the Department’s current review of this matter.” Does that mean she is formally recused?  Given Ms. Jones’ deceptive and improper conduct in this matter, not to mention her relentless effort to adopt policies that harm students and taxpayers and help only special interests, recusal is the only responsible course. 

— Deputy Secretary Mitchell Zais has been designated the Senior Department Official for this matter. But is that appropriate? Last year he blatantly disregarded his duties in pressuring the Department’s acting inspector general, Sandra Bruce, to curb an investigation of Ms. Jones’s restoration of another accreditor, ACICS, and then acted to replace Ms. Bruce with a Department of Education lawyer, before that firing was reversed?

If NACIQI supports the Department punishing HLC for its action, even as the Department has moved in the opposite direction, toward reinstating accreditor ACICS — after the Department assembled voluminous evidence that ACICS allowed egregious school abuses on its watch, and has since received more such evidence — you will be sending a terrible message to accreditors, and also to schools. You will be telling accreditors that they won’t get in trouble, or risk losing recognition by the Department, for allowing schools to deceive, abuse, overcharge, or under-educate students. Instead, they will get in trouble only for demanding quality, compliance, and honesty from schools. And schools will know they can walk all over accreditors, ignoring their standards and even their decisions, because the Department, at least under Betsy DeVos and Diane Auer Jones, will blame the accreditor for any dispute. 

That’s not what NACIQI is supposed to do. Please don’t do that.