This week, the Trump administration inched ever-so deeper into the realm of pitch-black comedy, when Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos selected a former for-profit college dean to head a squad that investigates fraud in higher education.
Julian Schmoke Jr., who worked as a dean at DeVry University from late 2008 to 2012, will head the Education Department’s Student Aid Enforcement Unit, which President Obama created in 2016 to both crack down on bad behavior by colleges and analyze fraud claims by former students seeking to have their loans forgiven. While the task force wasn’t exclusively designed to deal with for-profit institutions, those schools have of course been a hotbed of fraudulent activity within the world of higher ed. Under Obama, regulators led an aggressive and often successful campaign to rein in the worst practices by some of the country’s education chains.
Including, as it just so happens, DeVry. In December 2016, the company agreed to a $100 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over allegations that for years it had misled students into enrolling using bogus employment stats. Dating back to at least 2008, the school had run TV ads claiming that 90 percent of its graduates found work within their field. But according to the FTC’s complaint, the school blatantly fudged that figure by including in it students who had actually taken menial service industry jobs. Grads who were employed selling clothes at Macy’s and serving food at the Cheesecake Factory were counted as having work “in their field,” for instance.
Ironically, the Department of Education actually bragged about the DeVry settlement in the press release announcing Student Aid Enforcement Unit, which will now be headed by one of the school’s ex-employees.
I haven’t seen anybody suggest that the Schmoke was personally involved in any of his former employers’ chicanery. There may be reason to question what he knew, since his LinkedIn page notes that, among other responsibilities, his job included “coaching and identifying students for placement into jobs and internships in collaboration with Career Services.” But ultimately, he worked for at a school that, according to the goverment, was actively scamming students at the time. Now he is in charge of policing the scammers. The administration’s bland reassurance that, “Dr. Schmoke neither had any knowledge of or involvement in the settlement agreement between the university and the U.S. Department of Education” is pretty cold comfort. The fox-guarding-the-hen-house tweets have of course written themselves.
It has been obvious from the get-go that Donald Trump and DeVos would let for-profit colleges run wild over the next few years. Our president, after all, marketed a scam series of get-rich-quick real estate seminars as ”Trump University.” Our education secretary is basically a walking cautionary tale about the power of wealth in politics who evinced zero interest in consumer protections for students. Since taking over her Department, she’s already begun the process of rewriting and watering down the gainful employment regulations that were designed to punish schools that saddled students with too much debt and worthless degrees. Compared to that move, this appointment is relatively small potatoes. But as an act of trolling? Even by the Trump administration’s standards, it’s pretty stupendous.