October 27, 2020

DeVos Deputy Slaps Accreditor HLC Anyway

DeVos Deputy Slaps Accreditor HLC Anyway

In July, a Department of Education outside advisory committee, dominated by Republicans, rejected, by a 9-2 vote, an absurd and outrageous effort by Betsy DeVos aides to punish accreditor Higher Learning Commission (HLC) for its role in the meltdown of the Dream Center Education Holdings (DCEH) chain of career colleges. Background: In late 2017, HLC had suspended the accreditation, and thus the eligibility for federal student grants and loans, of two Art Institutes campuses when brand-new DCEH took them over. Instead of effectively fighting the lost accreditation, DCEH lied about its accreditation status to students, and the Department of Education was complicit in that lie while trying to maneuver behind the scenes to fix the problem, until the scheme was exposed, first on this website starting in May 2018 and later by the House Education and Labor Committee and others.

The Department’s effort to punish HLC, when in fact much more of blame for the mess belonged to DCEH and the Department itself, could have ended when the advisory committee, NACIQI, refused to go along. But the Department insisted on taking the next step — review by a designated “Senior Department Official,” namely Deputy Secretary of Education Mitchell Zais.

Zais has now released his decision, and he insists that HLC violated its own rules, and Department regulations, in suspending the DCEH schools. But he rejects many of the Department’s original conclusions and rejects the punishment that the original Department review sought — barring HLC from accrediting new schools for a year.  Instead, he requires HLC to submit monitoring reports to the Department for a year.

“To be sure,” Zais reflects, DCEH early on could have done more to clarify and address HLC’s decision to suspend accreditation. “There were,” he says, “shortcomings to go around.”

That’s a real understatement. Zais never criticizes DCEH for deceiving students. And he ignores the incompetence and improper cover-up and deceptions in this matter by others at his own Department, especially Acting Under Secretary Diane Auer Jones, a former for-profit college executive.

Last week, House Education and Labor Committee chair Bobby Scott (D-VA) issued subpoenas to DeVos staffers on the DCEH matter, charging that the Department had been stonewalling for more than a year. (Scott and House Oversight Committee chair Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) also released new internal Department documents today that seem to confirm a whistleblower’s charge, vehemently denied by the Department, that Jones blocked progress on an online tool designed to help ripped-off students apply for loan relief.)

HLC can appeal Zais’s decision, but the next appeal is to Betsy DeVos, who has consistently favored the interests of predatory colleges over those of students and taxpayers. It might want to wait and see how the election goes.

Zais was never the appropriate person to review this matter. Last year he was caught blatantly disregarding his duties in pressuring the Department’s acting inspector general, Sandra Bruce, to curb an investigation of Jones’s restoration of another accreditor, ACICS, which had been notoriously asleep at the switch as for-profit colleges under its charge repeatedly abused students and taxpayers. Zais then acted to replace Bruce with a Department of Education lawyer, before that firing was reversed.

The mess of corruption and incompetence regarding education policy in the Trump administration has been called out at least twice in the past week. Jason Botel, a Democrat who served as acting assistant secretary for K-12 education in the first part of Trump’s term, wrote in an article, “I don’t think Trump has done much worthwhile to improve outcomes for American children.” But Botel did praise his colleagues at the education department for their determination and skill. By contrast, DeVos in a speech at Michigan’s arch-right Hillsdale College, suggested she has the same kind of contempt for Department staff as she has for America’s students, throwing red meat to her right-wing, anti-government audience, according to prepared remarks:”I assume most of you have never stepped foot inside the U.S. Department of Education. And I can report, you haven’t missed much.”