U.S. Crackdown on For-Profit Schools Is Said to Go Idle

The Education Department said Friday evening that Secretary Betsy DeVos “is committed to protecting students who have been defrauded by schools,” that it had not stopped approving loan relief and that a review of the program was being led by senior career staff members.

During the Obama administration’s second term, the department put both financial and regulatory muscle into the policing of a sector that was frequently criticized for deceiving vulnerable and poor students about the cost and benefits of signing up to get a degree.

Ms. DeVos has brought aboard officials who have worked in the for-profit college sector and have expressed skepticism about the Obama administration’s aggressive regulation and enforcement. Supporters say that for-profit colleges provide a ladder for the most disadvantaged students and that any misdeeds represent a tiny fraction of the industry.

Advocates, state prosecutors and some members of Congress have expressed concern that Ms. DeVos will weaken regulations that were put into effect to curb abuses by for-profit colleges.

While some career training schools have delivered as promised, critics argue that tens of thousands of students were lured by misleading advertising and illegal recruiting practices to enroll in expensive programs that failed to deliver what they promised — while reeling in millions of dollars in federal aid.

Two large chains failed — Corinthian Colleges in 2015, and ITT Technical Institute in 2016 — leaving thousands of students in debt and with no degree. The federal government, as the largest provider of student loans, was left to rescue those who were cheated.

Investigators said collaboration among various federal and state offices was critical to efforts to root out fraud at the schools and provide relief to indebted students. Current and former employees say all such contact must now be approved at the department’s highest levels, even routine conversations and meetings — a vetting that was not required before the Trump team came aboard.

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Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general, has battled the for-profit sector in court.

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Steven Senne/Associated Press

An Education Department spokesman rejected that assertion, saying Friday evening that “we regularly consult and work with stakeholders outside the department.”

Nonetheless, current and former staff members say that shifts in tone and tactics in recent months have compromised enforcement and had a chilling effect among some of the career civil servants.

They have been unsettled by developments related to the department’s Student Aid Enforcement Unit. The unit, established last year, was designed to move more…

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