Testimony of Walter Ochinko
Research Director, Veterans Education Success
U.S. Department of Education National Advisory Council on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI)
Review of the Higher Learning Commission
July 29, 2020
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the Education Department’s surprising conclusion that the Higher Learning Commission failed to comply with federal regulations. My name is Walter Ochinko and I am the Research Director at Veterans Education Success.
I say surprising because overwhelming evidence demonstrates that HLC scrupulously followed its own standards as well as Departmental regulations. As you know, when HLC notified the Dream Center in January 2018 that it was revoking the accreditation of two Art Institute campuses, it stressed that, because the schools operated as for-profits, the pre-accreditation exemption for nonprofit institutions did not apply. Nonetheless, the Dream Center continued to assure students that the schools were accredited for 6 months. In fact, the credits earned by student enrolled at these two schools were worthless. In October 2018, the Department acknowledged as much when it forgave loans for students who had been attending these schools when Dream Center misrepresented their accreditation status.
The record also demonstrates that the Department continued to disburse federal student aid, despite knowing that the schools were no longer accredited. Then, the Department literally bent over backwards to reverse the effects of the loss of accreditation by retroactively recognizing the two schools as nonprofits and pressuring HLC to reverse its decisions.
The Dream Center’s misrepresentation of its school’s accreditation status is right out of the playbook of their former owner—the Education Management Corporation. Between 2013 and 2015, EDMC paid over $200 million to settle four state and federal lawsuits for deceptive and misleading advertising and recruiting. Our 2015 report on schools that are eligible to enroll veterans that do not lead to a job included an EDMC school that misrepresented its accreditation status to students.
I want to close by reminding you that veterans were impacted by the Dream Center’s misrepresentation of its accreditation status. These veterans’ GI Bill benefits were wasted at these two Art Institute campuses. They are not eligible to have more than a token restoration of their GI Bill benefits.
I urge you to think about the impact on veterans like Army veteran Marta Villanueva, who served in Iraq and used her GI Bill at the Art Institute of Phoenix:
“It’s heartbreaking because we earned these benefits, literally with sweat, blood and tears.”