Betsy Devos Remakes Higher Education in the Image of Trump University

The for-profit system of accreditation is as corrupt as the bond-rating system was, only it’s not only dollars at stake but the lives and dreams of a generation of strivers.


Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

One of the president's favorite cabinet secretaries is Education’s Betsy DeVos. She might be first if it weren’t for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has the capacity to ruin the planet while she can only ruin the next generation.

Her latest assault on students comes in the form of restoring the standing of ACICS, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, a deeply discredited accrediting body. It was stripped of its authority by the Obama Administration for approving of schools that promise aspiring students the moon and the stars if only they would take on ever more debt to enroll in worthless courses to land jobs that never materialize.  

Many for-profits would cease to exist if ACICS and other accreditors didn’t turn a blind eye to predatory practices that makes payday lenders look like the Federal Reserve Board. They’re the gatekeepers to the spigot of federal funds that flow through students to schools so long as they are accredited. But that process is flawed and rife with conflicts. Often a school picks and pays its accreditor. Many accreditors have executives of schools on their boards. It’s not an arms-length transaction.

Obama moved to curb the worst practices of for-profits in the face of billions of dollars in federal financial-aid dollars going to waste on schools whose business model was to lure students in the door, upsell them, and cashier them out after they’d tapped out on loans.

Of course, DeVos stopped that reform in its tracks.

Not only does anything bearing Obama’s fingerprints have to go, the demise of Trump University must be avenged. The main difference between the hard sell at Trump U. and other fraudulent for-profits may be that the president at least held out the promise of a picture of himself, or a cardboard facsimile thereof, with “graduates” to hang on the non-existent walls of their non-existent offices at their non-existent jobs. When some wised-up students buried by debt and unemployed sued, Trump took after the “so-called judge” (of Mexican heritage) hearing the case. The suit dragged on for years until President Trump finally settled for $25 million, after Trump U. had already died an unmerciful death.  

It’s not only ACICS getting temporary reinstatement. DeVos is also not enforcing regulations designed to curb the rampant fraud while also embarking on new rulemaking to roll back student protections in those prior regulations, according to Aaron Ament, who heads up the National Student Legal Defense Network, a non-partisan, non-profit public interest group designed to help victims of these schools. He, along with the Century Foundation, sued for the release of DOE documents that show just how bad ACICS had been.

Since her embarrassing confirmation hearings which exposed a weak understanding of the job, DeVos has worked to stop “persecution” of for-profits. Investigations into DeVry Educational Group (renamed Adtalem Global Education after paying $100 million in fines to the Federal Trade Commission), Bridgepoint Education and Career Education Corporation for deceptive ads, high-pressure tactics and abysmal job placement round down in a wolf-guarding-the-chicken-coop action.

DeVos hired employees from all three schools to high level jobs in the department, which now operates more to protect the big-bucks non-profits from the students rather than to protect the students.

The DOE says the Secretary was right to temporarily reinstate ACICS while it reviewed 30,000 pages, overlooked by the prior Administration, in which ACICS explained why it operated the way it did. 

Two of the chains, Corinthian and ITT Tech, ACICS approved may cost the Department huge sums. Next week, San Francisco court will hear arguments that the DOE should pay back every student defrauded by Corinthian. An Indianapolis court is already set to approve a $1.5 billion settlement for former ITT students.

ACICS says it’s turned over a new leaf since its standing was revoked by improving its management and practices, and is asking to be recognized as a new agency.

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The whole arrangement is rotten and DOE should take a page from the overdue reforms of the bond rating agencies, Moody’s, Standards & Poor, and Fitch, which gave triple A ratings to debt that should have been much lower in hopes of getting their underwriting business. It took the collapse of the economy before that corrupt system was changed.

The for-profit system of accreditation is just as corrupt only it’s not only dollars at stake. It’s the lives of a generation of hard working students being ruined by a mountain of debt incurred for nothing when all they wanted was to increase their chances of achieving their American Dreams. Under the non-watchful eye of government, accreditors and for-profit schools have cheated them out of that chance.  There ought to be a law against that. There would be if only DeVos wanted to enforce it.