March 15, 2021

To Curb Scam Colleges, Cardona Must Open Education Department Books

To Curb Scam Colleges, Cardona Must Open Education Department Books

Earlier this month, 15 national organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers, Center for American Progress, and the National Consumer Law Center, plus me, sent a letter to the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, urging the education department to move promptly to provide the public with much better access to critical information about how colleges are performing and about Department actions.

Especially during the Donald Trump-Betsy DeVos years, but in fact over decades, the Department has failed to provide such ready access to all kinds of critical documents and information — even though this is the public’s business, involving tens of billions annually in taxpayer money, money we invest in the futures of moderate- and low-income Americans seeking to build better lives.

The problem is particularly acute when it comes to access to information about predatory for-profit colleges that deceive and abuse students, often leaving them deep in debt and without the careers they sought.

Advocates, researchers, and policymakers need the information to identify ways to improve higher education and school accountability. Students and borrowers need this information to make informed decisions about their educational and student loan options. 

The Department could do much more to release the information and make it available in useful formats. 

Here are some examples:

–The public should know the numbers and dates of “borrower defense” claims submitted by former students since 2014 alleging they are entitled to have their student loans discharged because their schools deceived them; the information should be broken down by schools, so we can understand where student complaints are most common and have a better handle on how the backlog of claims might be addressed. 

–The public should have automatic access to all program participation agreements — the agreements with the Department under which schools get access to federal student grants and loans — so we know the conditions under which colleges are operating and what problems may have arisen.

–The public should know about letters of credit and heightened cash monitoring — conditions the Department sometimes imposes when schools are in financial trouble or behave irresponsibly. 

–The public, including students, should know automatically when the Department decides to end federal Title IV aid to a school. That happened with the Premier Education Group schools last year, yet the public didn’t learn of the decision until it was mentioned in letters to the schools from their accrediting organizations. When I asked the Department press office for the letter from the Department to the schools, that office told me to file a Freedom of Information Act request.

Relying on FOIA isn’t the way to go here. The public doesn’t always know there is something to ask for. And my colleagues and I have waited multiple years for the Department to provide records in response to FOIA requests.

–The public should know automatically when schools seek approval from the Department for a change of ownership or to be converted from for-profit to non-profit status — and when the Department makes a decision. I asked the Department for a year and a half whether it had reversed its 2016 decision to reject the non-profit conversion of one chain of schools, and got no answer.

–The Department also should automatically post program reviews and compliance audits, actions by accreditors, and audited financial statements.

–The public should get better data regarding school compliance with the federal rule that for-profit colleges get at least 10 percent of their revenue from sources besides federal aid. The Department posts that information annually in a static downloadable spreadsheet. Many years, some schools are omitted from the document, with no explanation. A possible reason is that the Department and the school don’t agree on the 90-10 figure, but the public should be told about the dispute and, eventually, the resolution.

–Also: Some for-profit colleges that were previously publicly traded are now free of obligations to make disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission because they have changed to private equity ownership or non-profit. For at least some categories of institutions that are not publicly traded, the Department should require them to provide—and post— analogous disclosures, for example about law enforcement investigations and lawsuits against the school or company.

Some schools and their lawyers are likely happy with the status quo, thinking it’s better that they and the Department discreetly take care of business behind the scenes. But we saw what happened when the Trump administration tried to handle, for example, the Dream Center chains of schools that way — changing owners and status and eligibility and rules in secret. Students didn’t know they were attending an unaccredited school. Campuses closed without warning.

Transparency brings not only accountability but also better outcomes.

So we are asking Secretary Cardona and his team to commit to promptly sharing critical information, in easily usable formats, and aggregated by school owner — and that they act soon to implement this commitment.