February 29, 2020

DeVos Fills Sole Student Slot on Outside Advisory Panel With A Former Aide

DeVos Fills Sole Student Slot on Outside Advisory Panel With A Former Aide

Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos has appointed, as the sole student representative on a key Department of Education outside advisory committee, a Michigan law student who until recently worked at the Department as a confidential assistant to DeVos’s top higher education aide, Diane Auer Jones. The advisory body, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), focuses on oversight of the accrediting agencies that approve colleges to receive federal student grants and loans. Jones is in charge of the Department’s efforts to oversee and restructure accreditation, as well as the Department’s rollback of regulations aimed at protecting students and taxpayers from predatory abuses by colleges.

DeVos’s appointment to NACIQI of Amanda Delekta, a student at Michigan State University’s law school, disturbed some education experts and advocates for students, because of her close and immediate ties to Jones, the top decision-maker on issues about which Delekta is supposed to be providing independent review and advice.

I don’t know how Delekta views her new role on NACIQI; she asked me to direct my questions to the Department’s press office. Delekta may turn out to be a strong advocate for students. But the decision by DeVos and Jones to appoint her appears to be another overreach on their part, another effort to stifle independent and dissenting voices as they remake Department rules to favor corporate special interests.

Jones is a former senior executive at one of the worst predatory college chains, Career Education Corporation. Empowered by DeVos, Jones has bulldozed over Obama-era regulations — gainful employment, borrower defense, accreditation — that were aimed at curbing predatory schools, which for decades have been ripping off students and taxpayers with a toxic mix of deceptive recruiting, high prices, and low quality programs. Jones and DeVos have worked to rig the regulatory process, sharply limiting the number of truly pro-student representatives on negotiating committees, adding representatives associated with bad actor colleges, coercing pro-student advocates to accept bad outcomes, and seeking to limit public access to the proceedings.

While the appointment of Jones’s former assistant to NACIQI “does not break the law, it is a huge conflict of interest,” says Antoinette Flores, director for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress. “It’s a conflict when Diane Jones is making decisions that impact NACIQI’s authority, and is the senior official deciding on accreditation applications, as well as on re-writing Department regulations.”

“NACIQI,” Flores adds, “is supposed to be independent, a check on the Department’s power, and it’s important that the voices on NACIQI are independent.”

Delekta, a 2019 graduate of the University of Michigan, worked as a confidential assistant in the Office of the Under Secretary of Education from January to August of 2019, according to a Department press release and Delekta’s LinkedIn profile. Jones joined the Department in February 2018 and has served as the acting Under Secretary since June 2018. Sources with knowledge of the office say Delekta worked directly for Jones.

Delekta was an intern at the conservative Heritage Foundation in fall 2018. While an undergraduate, she was vice president of her school’s College Republicans group, and she was featured in a December 2016 New York Times article about students protesting the election of Donald Trump; she was described as “ecstatic when her candidate, Donald J. Trump, won the presidential election.”

That Delekta is apparently is a conservative Republican, though, is not the issue. There’s no reason a conservative Republican can’t be a valuable pro-student voice on college accountability issues. In fact, conservatives and Republicans were historically skeptical of for-profit colleges, and the principles they have espoused should make them skeptical of companies engaged in massive waste, fraud, and abuse with taxpayer dollars, and make them want to strengthen, not weaken, accountability.

But the Trump-McConnell-DeVos Republican party is all about diverting resources to wealthy donors whose campaign contributions keep the GOP in power.  And all about revolving door opportunists, like Diane Auer Jones, who move back and forth between government and the predatory corporations that government is supposed to restrain. In short, it’s all about corruption, and in this corrupt environment, a position reserved by law for an independent actor is delivered, as quietly as possible, to an insider.

By law, NACIQI is designed to have eighteen members, with six, including the student member, appointed by the Secretary of Education, six appointed by congressional Republicans, and six by congressional Democrats. The members serve six year terms. The law requires that at least one active student serve on the NACIQI panel. The law also specifies that NACIQI members be selected “[o]n the basis of the individuals’ experience, integrity, impartiality, and good judgment,” as well as knowledge and credentials in higher education.

Simon Boehme served as the student member of NACIQI from 2013 until 2019.  He was selected after the Department had gone through multiple rounds of candidate interviews. Boehme, a graduate of Cornell University and Ireland’s Maynooth University, is a tech entrepreneur who is now an executive at the scooter and bike sharing company Lime.

In an essay he published at the time of his departure, Boehme discussed how during his tenure NACIQI had begun to take a more active role, helping to develop standards to measure college student achievement and an “accreditor dashboard” to evaluate accreditor performance. He expressed concern that new guidelines and regulations issued under DeVos weakened NACIQI’s input and, more fundamentally, weakened Department oversight of accreditors and thus also colleges, to the detriment of students.

In December 2018, the Department issued a notice seeking nominations for candidates to replace Boehm and other members whose terms would soon expire. In October 2019 the Department of Education posted a follow-up notice seeking nominations for the new student member.

The Department announced new NACIQI members on December 26, but there was no mention of a new student member then, or ever, until NACIQI met in Washington on Thursday. When that meeting commenced, the members, including Delekta, introduced themselves, and observers were left to their own devices to find out who she was. Delekta’s connection to Jones was first noted, on Twitter, by Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Eric Kelderman.

Delekta told the meeting she was happy to have the opportunity to represent students.

It’s not as if Delekta was the only applicant for the NACIQI student slot. Staff at several pro-student and veterans advocacy organizations tell me they are aware of other students who applied and never received a response from the Department.

A Department official told me Friday that the Department reviewed “several applications” for the student slot.

The Department did not answer my other questions about the process and selection of Delekta, such as whether Diane Jones or any other officials recused themselves.

With Delekta in place on the NACIQI dais, her former boss Diane Jones opened Thursday’s meeting, and she made clear that she would no longer tolerate the NACIQI of old, the NACIQI that was making more of an effort to provide independent review and independent advice. Jones’ appearance seemed to confirm the very worst fears expressed by Delekta’s predecessor Simon Boehme.

Jones said NACIQI could no longer review student outcomes data. She said the accreditor dashboard was no more.  When some NACIQI members objected, Jones said that NACIQI could offer recommendations, but decisions belonged to Secretary DeVos.

Jones’ tirade continued. She said NACIQI “is not a place to debate the merits of the most recent news article,” or Twitter feed, perhaps mindful of a February 15 USA Today report that Reagan National University, a school approved by the accreditor ACICS, was a fraud, seemingly without any students or faculty.

Near the end of the Obama administration, with the endorsement of a strong majority of NACIQI members, the Department had dropped ACICS as a recognized accreditor, because of voluminous evidence that the group had failed to exercise adequate oversight as predatory chains including Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech scammed students and taxpayers for tens of billions of dollars. But, with for-profit lobbyists complaining that the Department’s decision left poor-performing colleges without access to an accreditor, and thus to federal student grants and loans, DeVos and Jones reversed the ruling and reinstated ACICS in 2018.

The USA Today report exposed ACICS’s continued unfitness, as did a recent decision by a committee of the non-profit umbrella group Council on Higher Education Accreditation to remove its own stamp of approval from ACICS, which prompted ACICS, in January, to resign from the group. Career Department officials have also continued to express concerns about ACICS’s performance overseeing specific schools. And ACICS apparently is feeling the heat; the day before the NACIQI meeting, it wrote to the largest school chain still under its authority, Stratford University, essentially shutting the schools down, based on reports that Stratford has been running a campus in Erbil, Iraq, without accreditor approval. [UPDATE 03-01-20: Stratford is blaming another institution, International Academic City.]

But Jones suggested that all of this was none of NACIQI’s business.

Jones told NACIQI that it was time for states that have joined a multi-state agreement, called NC-SARA, to stop imposing consumer protection rules on online colleges. She told NACIQI it was time for states to bend to the DeVos Department’s decision to obliterate the distinction between national and regional accreditation, an obscure distinction for laypeople, but a major issue in higher education.

Jones even told the NACIQI members that she would shut off the internet at the meeting site if the panelists asked too many questions based on conversation on Twitter.

NACIQI already had some members who generally seem to see things the DeVos-Jones way. NACIQI’s chair, chosen by its members, somehow remains Arthur Keiser, the head of Keiser University, a Florida school whose conversion from for-profit to non-profit was so troubling, in terms of the financial benefits it provided him, that it made the front page of the New York Times. Keiser has defended that transaction, as well as settlements his schools reached with the Justice Department and Florida’s attorney general to resolve charges of, respectively, defrauding taxpayers and deceiving students. Keiser is also a long-dominant figure in the for-profit college’s main lobby group, CECU, which has repeatedly pressed to gut college accountability regulations. His most notable act as a NACIQI member was a failed attempt, at a June 2016 meeting, to persuade the panel to vote to keep ACICS alive.

While Jones was asserting dominance over NACIQI, Betsy DeVos was across town, getting tough questions from Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee. Most of the discussion was about K-12 education, but asked about ACICS and Reagan National University, DeVos said, “We have an investigation launched, and we’re on it.” Department officials had sent a letter to ACICS about the matter earlier in the week.

But with DeVos and Jones riding roughshod over higher education policy, the scrutiny of a dying, repeat offender accreditor is a blip. With their Department’s active support, the business of predatory education — with billions in taxpayer dollars going to deceptive for-profit corporations that ruin students’ financial futures — continues.