Appointing a for-profit college executive to oversee the Department of Education’s higher education agenda might seem too on-the-nose even for the Trump administration—but that’s exactly what happened. As students settle back into school, here’s what DeVos’ principal deputy under secretary Diane Auer Jones has been doing behind the scenes:
Diane Auer Jones has extensive ties to the for-profit college industry and a clear record of attempting to water down its oversight or regulation.
It’s the Education Department’s responsibility to regulate accreditors—the watchdogs that assess whether a school is offering its students an adequate education. Accreditation demonstrates to the government that a school is stable and provides a quality education, and is a requirement for a school’s students (and by extension, the schools themselves) to access federal financial aid. But if an accreditor is lax in its oversight role, it risks certifying underperforming schools that may be on the verge of collapse, leaving students saddled with mountains of debt and no degree to show for it.
Jones served in the Bush administration’s Education Department, but resigned because she believed it was treating accreditors too harshly. She left government to join the board of the American Academy for Liberal Education, the accreditor she thought was being unfairly scrutinized, and to become an executive at the for-profit Career Education Corporation. At CEC, she was the primary representative to accreditors, including the scandal-plagued Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. ACICS accredited the vast majority of CEC’s approximately 80 campuses, at a time when state and federal law enforcement were conducting more than twenty state and federal investigations into CEC’s recruiting and financial aid practices—resulting in CEC paying out several multi-million dollar settlements.
In 2016, ACICS lost its accreditation status after failing to adequately oversee the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech. Misconduct by those for-profit schools left tens of thousands of students in debt they’re still fighting to get out of—even as DeVos is trying to make it harder for them to obtain debt relief.
With her own close ties to and favoritism towards the for-profit college industry, it was no surprise that Betsy DeVos appointed Auer Jones to be the “the chief architect” of the Trump administration’s higher ed agenda.
In that role, Jones has sold out students and propped up predatory for-profit colleges. Jones recommended that DeVos reinstate ACICS as an accreditor and allow taxpayer funds in the form of federal student loans to flow to what Senator Elizabeth Warren’s office has called “some of the sleaziest actors in American higher education.” DeVos eventually did so.
Beyond ACICS, Jones has also proposed a broader series of rules that would ease restrictions on accreditors and leave students more vulnerable. And documents obtained by the House Education and Labor Committee found that Jones “had pulled strings” to help prop up a chain of for-profit colleges run by Dream Center Education Holdings before the schools eventually collapsed.
Diane Auer Jones should not have been involved with the decision to reinstate ACICS as an accreditor.
In July 2018, Democracy Forward demanded that Jones recuse herself from the process, since federal law (including the Constitution) requires that an official must be removed from a matter if “a disinterested observer may conclude that [she] has in some measure adjudged the facts as well as the law” of a decision “in advance of hearing it.” Under federal law, decisions like the ones Jones is responsible for “must be attended, not only with every element of fairness but with the very appearance of complete fairness.” Allowing Jones, who came straight from a troubled for-profit college company that relied on ACICS’s accreditation to access federal financial aid, to work to reinstate ACICS falls far short of that standard.
In July 2018, we sued the Department of Education for unlawfully stonewalling documents that could reveal other potential conflicts of interest for Jones.
Here’s what we still want to know:
- How else has Jones pushed policies that benefit her former employer and other for-profit industry players where she’s had ties?
- How have Jones’s policies helped other predatory for-profit colleges?
- Is Jones coordinating with the organizations she regulates while she helps to formulate the Trump administration’s oversight of them?