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DOJ reaches largest-ever settlement with for-profit higher education provider

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced on Monday that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has reached a settlement in its false claims case against the Education Management Corporation (EDMC), an operator of for-profit colleges and universities. The $95.5 million settlement is the largest ever in a higher education false claims case. EDMC will also forgive a total of $102.8 million in loans to over 80,000 students who attended its schools, which include Argosy University, the Art Institutes, Brown Mackie College, and South University, between 2006 and 2014.

The lawsuit was originally filed in 2007 by whistle-blowers within EDMC, who alleged that the organization was offering extra incentives to their admissions officers based on the number of students they enroll, a violation of the Incentive Compensation Ban in the Higher Education Act. Said Attorney General Lynch in her statement, “EDMC’s actions were not only a betrayal of their students’ trust; they were a violation of federal law.”

Reactions to the settlement have been mixed. While it is encouraging to see the DOJ take action against illegal and unethical practices at for-profit institutions, many student and consumer advocates have criticized the settlement for providing too little relief for students who accrued thousands of dollars of federal student loan debt at EDMC institutions.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has indicated that his Department is willing to listen to claims from students who believe that EDMC mislead them when if offered loans, but critics of the deal say listening is not enough. “I am disappointed that the department’s only plan for EDMC students is to hear their complaints,” said Robyn Smith, a lawyer at the National Consumer Law Center, who was quoted in The Chronicle

Others have criticized the language of the settlement, which did not force EDMC to admit wrongdoing for its actions. Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst at New America, laments the continued lack of accountability of for-profit institutions.

“Too many of these cases are settled without finding fault,” he said in the same Chronicle article, “and the for-profit industry has been able to say, ‘Oh, nothing is proven.’”

Despite its issues, this settlement is another step in the Federal Government’s continuing efforts to rein in the questionable behavior of for-profit colleges and universities. Last year, the Department of Education formed an interagency task force to more rigorously oversee for-profit institutions of higher learning. The Department of Defense also suspended all tuition assistance to the University of Phoenix, which targets veterans in its recruiting efforts.

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