How the Education Department Tried to Help a For-Profit College Chain That Lied to Students

(Photo: Gage Skidmore)

The Trump administration’s cozy relationship with for-profit colleges — including Dream Center Holdings, the owner of schools that misled students about accreditation status — has been the subject of intense scrutiny for more than a year. This week, the Washington Post reported on documents uncovered through Freedom of Information Act litigation by American Oversight and the watchdog group Student Defense that show top Education Department official Diane Auer Jones in frequent contact with Dream Center executives, shedding new light on her efforts to aid the scandal-ridden company.

Prior to joining the Trump administration, Jones was a lobbyist for for-profit colleges. She is now  in charge of overseeing the accreditation of the very institutions she used to work for, including accreditation by organizations like the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), whose refusal to bend its rules for Dream Center is the subject of much of the drama of the Dream Center’s final months.

Back in January 2018, HLC had told Dream Center to notify students at two of its schools that the schools’ accreditations had been downgraded. But Dream Center didn’t — not until June of that year. They did, however, continue to accept students’ tuition payments, and the Education Department continued to provide nearly $11 million in taxpayer-supported loans.

Last year, after Dream Center finally collapsed, a congressional investigation found that Jones had been working to help the schools regain accreditation. The closure of the schools, as the Post’s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel wrote, “would have embarrassed an administration that has rolled back regulations on for-profit education and filled the department with proponents.” Jones testified a year ago that she did not recall texting with Dream Center officials. And the Education Department had said Jones only became aware of the accreditation issue on July 10, 2018, and learned that the students had been lied to a week after that.

But a number of revelations — including the recently released documents, which were used in a House Education Committee report — undermine many of the department’s claims. Last summer, a few months after Dream Center finally collapsed, the New York Times reported on emails in which Dream Center officials discussed Jones’ efforts to restore accreditation, or to alter official regulations so that the schools could regain the accreditation retroactively.

There was also the fact that the Education Department had in May 2018 designated the schools as nonprofits, which allowed them to avoid certain regulations and to access federal student loans. At that same time, Dream Center CEO Brent Richardson said that Jones told him not to sue HLC regarding accreditation, saying that she would pursue a “more informal” strategy. (The department claims Jones did not understand that the potential lawsuit was about accreditation.)

Additionally, the documents unearthed by FOIA show more than 100 texts between Jones and Dream Center officials, some as far back as June 2018. In one June 14 text, Richardson thanked Jones for a meeting, and said that there was “an elegant solution to our problem and the [department] would not have to put up any money.”

Released documents also show that less than two weeks later, Dream Center emailed HLC to propose the retroactive reversal of the accreditation downgrade. When HLC contacted the Education Department to clarify whether such a reversal would violate official regulations, career department staff said it would, citing a memo from 2017. According to the Post, Jones contacted HLC officials the next day, saying that memo had been issued in error and that guidance retracting that policy would be released soon. 

The Post notes that it is unclear from the documents whether Secretary Betsy DeVos was aware of the efforts on behalf of Dream Center prior to July 2018. In the meantime, DeVos has sought to blame HLC for the harm to students, going so far as to recommend that an independent Education Department advisory board ban HLC from accrediting new schools for a year. 

As new information continues to emerge about how DeVos’ agency has catered to the interests of for-profit schools instead of those of students, American Oversight and Student Defense continue our investigation of influence and access at the department. You can read more about that investigation, and our related FOIA requests and litigation, here.

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