When you hear of FBI agents descending upon a place, you might think of a hostage situation, a drug raid, or the penetration of a terrorist cell. But you probably wouldn’t assume that those armed agents were working with the U.S. Department of Education on a raid on a Florida for-profit college.
FBI agents raided campuses of FastTrain College in May 2012 in order to obtain data (documents and a computer or two) in furtherance of a joint investigation of the FBI and DOE of allegedly deceptive practices. One might wonder why the drama was necessary: Couldn’t the government just subpoena the materials or go in with a little less gusto? Yes, but the drama may have been a part of the plan.
While on campus, the agents questioned students about their Pell grants, used for tuition and expenses. Not surprisingly, all this activity caused a good bit of chaos and stirred up concern among students. One student was quoted as saying he was glad he was on campus at the time of the raid, “because they could’ve took money from me, a lot of money from me, and I’d have been screwed.” Another student relayed concerns over whether FastTrain was going to continue to operate, and what would happen to his credits. The students’ statements demonstrate a real concern over the credibility and viability of the institution – a concern incited by the FBI’s dramatic entry.
The drama also had major impact online, where several reports seem to have already decided the guilt of the college, inaccurately stating that the investigation found “deceptive and otherwise questionable sales and marketing practices.” This inaccurate quote, which was picked up and disseminated by the Huffington Post, goes to show how careless journalism can set the tone of a story. Here’s what appears to have happened:
One report noted that “[t]here was a major undercover investigation by the General Accounting Office in 2010 of for-profit trade schools, which receive billions in federal loans and grants. The investigation uncovered ‘deceptive and otherwise questionable sales and marketing practices’ according to a government inquiry.”
A later report peeled off the second sentence, stating, “Our news partner Channel 4 reports the investigation uncovered ‘deceptive and otherwise questionable sales and marketing practices,’ according to a government inquiry.”
That quote itself was then picked up by Huffington Post contributor David Halperin, who stated “One report says the investigation found ‘deceptive and otherwise questionable sales and marketing practices.’”
These latter two stories missed the point that the identified deceptive practices were a part of the earlier 2010 GAO investigation and had nothing to do with the still-pending investigation of FastTrain. It appears that some writers are more than eager to jump to conclusions about the alleged greed of for-profit educators.
The DOE and the FBI have raided for-profit schools several times over the past several years – including at ITT and Corinthian College campuses. One source says that years into the ITT investigation, it finally concluded with no finding of wrongdoing. (Tell that to the students who fled from the school’s programs after the FBI raid.)
So why do the DOE and FBI keep up these shows of force at for-profit college campuses? Some of us skeptics may posit that they already have figured out for themselves that these institutions are bad, so they are making life difficult for the schools in order to give the industry a bad name in students’ eyes.
The FBI and DOE should follow the normal steps of investigation. Playing out drama and rigging public opinion before facts are gathered seems as incendiary as crying “fire” in a crowded theater or inspiring a bank run.