As DeVos’s Education Dept. Shifts Focus, Revisit FRONTLINE’s Reporting on For-Profit Colleges

May 14, 2018
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by Patrice Taddonio Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist

FILE - In this Sept. 7, 2017, file photo, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks at George Mason University Arlington, Va., campus. Students who attended for-profit colleges were twice as likely or more to default on their loans than students who attended public schools, according to a new federal study. The report comes as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rewrites rules that had been put in place by the Obama administration to protect students who said they were defrauded by their for-profit colleges. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

A team at the Education Department focused on investigating alleged fraudulent and predatory practices at for-profit colleges has been unwound, essentially shuttering investigations into several for-profit colleges where key hires of education secretary Betsy DeVos once worked, The New York Times reported on Sunday.

Citing anonymous current and former employees, The Times reported that only three employees remain on what was once a team of approximately one dozen investigators and lawyers, and that “their mission has been scaled back to focus on processing student loan forgiveness applications and looking at smaller compliance cases.”

An Education Department spokeswoman told The Times that the team’s reduced size was due to attrition. She said that the Department’s new employees who had once worked in the for-profit college sector had not reshaped the work of the team, and that the choice to focus the unit’s remaining members on student loan forgiveness “neither points to a curtailment of our school oversight efforts nor indicates a conscious effort to ignore ‘large-scale’ investigations.”

The news about the unit follows years of increased federal scrutiny of for-profit schools’ recruitment techniques and job placement claims — scrutiny that helped lead to the closure of several major for-profit college chains.

In the 2016 documentary A Subprime Education, building on its reporting in the 2010 documentary College, Inc, FRONTLINE investigated allegations of fraud and predatory behavior in the for-profit college industry.

As A Subprime Education explored, for-profit colleges were often advertised as the best option for low-income students who couldn’t afford a more traditional four-year degree. But for years, for-profits had charged students nearly five times as much as community colleges, while getting the bulk of their revenue, up to 90 percent, from student loans and grants — often from the federal government.

“This is the most heavily subsidized private business sector in America,” U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told correspondent Martin Smith in the documentary. “No one compares. Defense industry, agriculture don’t hold a candle to these boys.”

And yet, Smith and producer Marcela Gaviria found, some of those colleges had been collecting money and leaving students in debt, without degrees, and unprepared to face the job market — despite aggressive recruitment pitches promising the contrary.

“The problem is, is that for many of these students, they think they’re talking to an admissions adviser,” Elizabeth Baylor of the Center for American Progress told FRONTLINE. “They think they’re talking to someone with some sort of ethical standards. And they don’t realize that they’re talking to a person who is selling them something and that they might be better off to just walk away.”

Watch A Subprime Education in full below:

For more of FRONTLINE’s reporting on the for-profit college sector, watch College, Inc and Educating Sergeant Pantzke.

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