Bethune-Cookman Had a Reason to Invite Betsy DeVos to Give That Calamitous Commencement Speech

The invitation to DeVos makes sense in light of an affiliation the school is striking with a for-profit law school.

Bethune-Cookman University president Edison Jackson, left, and United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos applaud students as they are introduced during commencement exercises, Wednesday, May 10, 2017, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos applauds students as they are introduced during commencement exercises, in Daytona Beach, Fla., on May 10, 2017. Photo: John Raoux/AP

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s commencement speech at the historically black university Bethune-Cookman did not go well.

Students turned their backs, and some heckled and booed her. The event was such a disaster that many wondered what the university was thinking to have invited a speaker so opposed by its student body in the first place. What upside could there be in a scenario where the likely downside was so apparent?

But DeVos is not just in charge of giving flowery addresses to colleges and universities. She also administers the nation’s federal student loans — and through that perch holds life-or-death power over many higher-education institutions, particularly for-profit ones.

Bethune-Cookman, as it happens, recently formed a new affiliation with a for-profit school under fire for its practices. If the school, Arizona Summit Law School, loses its ability to take federal loans, the school becomes effectively defunct.

Bethune-Cookman entered into the affiliation agreement with Arizona, a for-profit college based in Phoenix, in March. It is owned by InfiLaw Corporation, which also operates law schools in North Carolina and Florida.

Its sister school the Charlotte School of Law was put on probation by the American Bar Association late last year over its consistently low bar-passage rates. In December, the Obama administration blocked the school’s ability to accept federal student aid, a potential death knell.

Arizona Summit Law School is plagued by many of the same problems as the Charlotte School of Law. In 2016, only 25 percent of its students passed the Arizona bar exam on their first try (at Arizona State University, the rate was 77 percent). Above the Law editor Elie Mistal was critical of the agreement, writing in the New York Times last spring that “encouraging African-American students to attend Arizona Summit will not help them achieve their goals. It will hobble them. Going to a law school that doesn’t prepare most of its students to pass the bar is not an ‘opportunity,’ unless ‘opportunity’ means being saddled with debt that you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to pay back.” And three-quarters of the students will be trying to pay that debt back without the benefit of a law license, if those statistics don’t improve.

Bethune-Cookman will be forming a scholarship program to send its students to the law school, and will also work together on certain marketing and academic support programs. The law school’s president, Donald Lively, told the Arizona Republic that while the school will maintain its for-profit status in the agreement, it is working toward achieving nonprofit status. The affiliation agreement could be a prelude to a possible acquisition.

David Halperin, a higher education policy expert who has worked on for-profit college accountability, noted that DeVos has the power to hold Arizona Summit Law School accountable — or not.

“The Education Department can’t formally stop one school from acquiring another, but it does control who is eligible for federal student aid and on what terms. The department has the power to cut off federal aid for abuses, as it did with Charlotte Law,” he said. “It also can declare that a school’s conversion from for-profit to nonprofit status is bogus — because the school is still operating like a for-profit and enriching the previous owners — and keep treating the school as a for-profit for purposes of federal law.”

A Bethune spokesperson didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment, but if DeVos’s invitation to speak was more about protecting the school’s ties to an infamous for-profit than it was providing the students at commencement an experience they could recall fondly, at least it makes a little more sense.

Or maybe not. The students in the audience never got the memo, and DeVos left humiliated. Bethune-Cookman leadership is probably wishing they’d found some other way to do DeVos a solid.

Top photo: United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos applauds students as they are introduced during commencement exercises, in Daytona Beach, Fla., on May 10, 2017.

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