July 16, 2021

The Department of Education Is Still Concealing the Public’s Business

The Department of Education Is Still Concealing the Public's Business

The Biden Department of Education has taken some strong steps to erase the ugly higher education agenda of Betsy Devos, who repeatedly sided with predatory for-profit colleges over struggling students and borrowers. But in one area especially, the Department so far is sticking to its old, troubling ways: It’s keeping hidden important records concerning its handling of controversial matters regarding colleges and federal student aid.

This week we learned that the Department gave preliminary approval to Adtalem Global Education’s purchase of Walden University — a proposed sale that has sparked controversy, because of allegations of abuses at Walden, previously operated by for-profit Laureate Education, as well as misconduct over the years at Adtalem schools. But we didn’t learn of the Department’s approval from the Department. We learned it from a filing Adtalem was required to make with the Securities and Exchange Commission, because it is a publicly-traded company; if the school was owned by private equity or a non-profit, we might still not know. The Department apparently made its decision to tentatively approve the deal on June 23. The Adtalem disclosure came on July 13. Still, today, there is no confirmation from the Department. 

Laureate and Adtalem, collectively, have received billions in taxpayer money from federal grants and loans to enroll students, and that money keeps flowing. This is the public’s business. Yet the Department has kept its decision a secret.

In March, fifteen national organizations (and me) wrote to Biden’s Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, urging him to start making available to the public on an ongoing basis the dealings of the Department related to higher education. With so many billions in taxpayer dollars, and the futures of so many students, connected to federal student aid, the public has the right to know what’s going on. But the Department still seems stuck in its established and disturbing pattern of behavior.

Last night, more evidence arose that the Department is concealing important information. Robert Shireman, a former Deputy Under Secretary of Education who serves as a member of NACIQI, the Department’s higher education advisory committee, sent an open letter to the members of that committee highlighting that the Department is refusing to release documents relating to college accrediting bodies that NACIQI will evaluate at its meetings starting eleven days from now — documents that, by law, are supposed to be made public.

The Department has posted online reports by its staff on each of the accrediting agencies in advance of the NACIQI meetings, but these reports are rather brief; some of them barely say anything besides a summary conclusion that the accreditor is doing OK. (Actually, as we post this article, the entire site housing these documents seems to be offline.)

It turns out, if you know the process, that these are not the only reports that the Department provides to the eighteen outside experts and school officials who sit on the NACIQI panel; they’re really just summaries. Much longer reports on each accreditor that NACIQI will review are, and in this case have been, delivered by the Department staff, and they provide lengthy submissions from the accreditors themselves, as well as staff comments. 

The Department, by law, is required to make these longer reports, like any materials provided to NACIQI members, available to the public. 

So Shireman in late June asked the Department staff if he could release the documents, since: (1) the NACIQI hearing was coming up; (2) members of the public have the right to speak at the hearing about the performance of the accrediting agencies under review; (3) having these materials would aid public commenters in preparing their comments; and, again (4) the public has the legal right to obtain the materials. 

But the Department said no, telling Shireman it would release the documents only through a Freedom of Information Act request. The Department explained to Shireman that a FOIA review would scrub the documents of any confidential business information, but that response ignored the fact that Department rules (34 CFR 602.31(f)), require the accrediting agencies to submit documents already stripped of things that can’t be made public. 

So Shireman followed the Department’s advice and filed a FOIA request, and he argued for expedited review, because Department FOIA responses can take months or years, and the NACIQI meeting is imminent. The Department denied that request. 

So Shireman appealed. The Department denied the appeal.

Man, ridiculous. 

Shireman last night wrote to his fellow NACIQI members that if the Department did not release the documents to the public in advance of the meeting, then at the meeting, “I intend to make another plea for timely public access to the documents, because the current situation poorly serves the public and our obligations.” He added, “It is unfair and unnecessary for the documents available to us as committee members to be hidden from public view when we are having a public meeting about those documents. After all, the documents are required to be made public.”

This isn’t just some pointless academic tussle; these are matters that affect people’s lives. Some of the accreditors under review at the upcoming meeting have for years vouched for the academic quality of some awful career and for-profit colleges, allowing these schools to keep enrolling students with federal aid dollars — and keep ruining the financial futures of hard-working people.

One glaring example is ACCSC, which kept Independence University and other schools operated by the predatory CEHE group as approved schools for years, until finally terminating accreditation in April. An ACCSC panel is supposed to hear Independence’s appeal at a hearing this month, or maybe it already held the hearing — we don’t know: In another example of lack of openness, ACCSC does not allow members of the public to attend, let alone speak at, such meetings.

ACCSC also was an accreditor for the collapsed predatory for-profit college operations Premier Education Group and Vatterott College, and for awful schools once operated by Career Education Corp. (now called Perdoceo). 

And ACCSC is the accreditor for Southeastern College, a for-profit school owned by controversial college operator Arthur Keiser. Keiser is also somehow the chair of NACIQI.

The summary staff report on ACCSC that the Department has posted online says very little, other than a few paragraphs of historical background and then the sentence, “The agency meets the requirements of the Secretary’s Criteria for Recognition,” plus a staff recommendation that the Department renew ACCSC’s authority to serve as a gatekeeper for federal aid for the maximum allowed renewal period of five years. The public, and potential public commenters at the hearing, at this point don’t know what’s in the longer report, so they have inadequate information about ACCSC or the quality of the Department staff’s review. 

UPDATE 07-21-21: Five organizations, plus me, wrote to Secretary Cardona today highlighting the Department’s failure to disclose its action on Walden and urging him to closely scrutinize the deal.