WASHINGTON (AP) — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Thursday picked a former official at an embattled for-profit university to head the agency's unit investigating fraud at for-profit colleges, prompting criticism that the Trump administration was promoting industry interests.
Since taking office six months ago, DeVos has moved to rescind two key Obama-era regulations that sought to deter for-profit colleges from misrepresenting its programs to students and failing to provide the education they need to get jobs after graduation. The department also has halted student-loan forgiveness in cases of possible fraud, causing a backlog of some 65,000 pending claims.
Announcing the appointment of Julian Schmoke Jr., a former associate dean at DeVry University, as head of agency's enforcement unit, the department cited his experience in higher education and said "he ensured the delivery of a quality education to students" at DeVry.
Democrats said the decision underscores the administration's close ties to the for-profit sector, pointing to Trump University, President Donald Trump's for-profit school which was sued for fraud.
"This is a joke, right?" tweeted Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat. "Basically akin to nominating influenza to be the Surgeon General." Murphy weighed in Tuesday after the story was first reported by Politico.
The department defended its decision, saying in a statement to The Associated Press that Schmoke served only in an academic capacity at DeVry and was not involved in admissions, recruitment, or corporate administrative activities.
"Dr. Schmoke neither had any knowledge of or involvement in the settlement agreement between the university and the U.S. Department of Education," the agency said.
Natalia Abrams, executive director of advocacy group Student Debt Crisis said that Schmoke lacks experience in regulation enforcement and "his track record as a dean at DeVry University speaks for itself."
"Schmoke's appointment gives us no confidence that the endorsement unit will fulfill its purpose in aiding defrauded students," Abrams said.
Barmak Nassirian, an expert with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said the Trump administration has been very receptive to the needs of the industry.
"The administration has been extremely sensitive to the demands and the complaints of the for-profit sector despite the fact that we have a mountain of evidence of widespread fraud within that sector," Nassirian said. "In an ideal world I would like to see the administration much more focused on protecting students and taxpayers."