October 8, 2021

Education Department To Revitalize Enforcement Office

Education Department To Revitalize Enforcement Office

Rising to the challenge of protecting America’s students from deceptive predatory colleges, the U.S. Department of Education announced today a major upgrade to its enforcement and investigative operation. Kristen Donoghue, who served as enforcement director at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau during the Obama administration, was named the Department’s chief enforcement officer, heading a revived Office of Enforcement.

The restored office is part of the Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid, now run by former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray. Cordray previously worked with Donoghue when he ran the CFPB.

“Vigorously ensuring that schools are adhering to the federal student aid program rules and delivering quality education to students is critical in America’s ability to build back better,” Under Secretary of Education James Kvaal said in a press release. “The Administration will prioritize Federal Student Aid’s effective oversight and enforcement of postsecondary schools.”

The Department stood up a serious enforcement unit near the end of the Obama administration under Robert Kaye, a former Federal Trade Commission litigator. But that unit was gutted, and major investigations cancelled, after Donald Trump was elected and anti-student Betsy DeVos became his education secretary.

The new team under Donoghue and Cordray, which plans to bring on some new senior hires, faces major challenges.

Numerous for-profit and predatory colleges that have been caught by law enforcement engaging in egregious unlawful abuses against students and taxpayers continue to enroll students and receive billions in federal dollars. Whistleblowers from school operations like Perdoceo, Zovio, and IEC have reported in detail to me and others about ongoing abuses.

Many of these schools are, because of past misconduct or shortcomings, on provisional agreements to get federal aid, giving the Department leeway to cut off aid for continuing abuses.

But the industry deploys an arsenal of lawyers and lobbyists to fight, delay, and defeat efforts to hold schools and executives accountable, and such tactics have in the past been successful in deterring Department officials and lawyers from taking action. And predatory school operations have made vile anonymous threats to former employees who have spoken to media and law enforcement, and also have been financing false attacks on industry critics.

The new enforcement office will need more resources to get the job done, and I am hopeful that Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, the Biden White House, and Democrats in Congress will provide them. There are many outstanding champions of students in the Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate. More Republicans should join them in the fight against waste, fraud, and abuse with federal education dollars, instead of doing the industry’s bidding while scooping up its campaign cash.

With President Biden and Vice President Harris having committed in 2020 to stand up to predatory schools, with the Federal Trade Commission announcing this week new measures to combat deceptive practices in the industry, with the upgraded enforcement unit at the education department, with greater coordination among agencies including the VA and the Pentagon, and improved cooperation with state law enforcement agencies, the federal government has the opportunity to drive more of the dishonest actors out of higher education at last. And to hold personally responsible the executives, from the strip mall to Wall Street, who run these abusive college operations.

UPDATE 10-08-21 6:30 pm: Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), one of the strongest champions for students in Congress, just issued a statement. “For-profit colleges essentially ran the Department for four years under Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos. With this announcement, President Biden and Secretary Cardona are making clear that those days are over,” Durbin said.