Degrees of Freedom, the “higher education experience” launched on the former Marlboro College campus, is on hiatus until further notice. The development comes days after its founder, former Obama White House official Seth Andrew, was charged on Tuesday with financial crimes by federal authorities.
The project was set to bring students to the Vermont campus this September, but Chandell Stone, its CEO, told VTDigger that’s no longer the case.
“We have reached out to all of our high school partners at this point, as well as students who were in the application process, to let them know what next steps are,” she said in an interview Thursday. “But they are aware that we will not be opening.”
Stone said she hoped the project would still get off the ground, but that its leaders were nevertheless “revisiting a lot of things.”
Federal prosecutors allege that Andrew improperly took $218,000 out of escrow accounts belonging to Democracy Prep Public Schools, a charter network he founded. They say he used part of the money to secure a more favorable mortgage on a $2.4 million Manhattan apartment before rolling the entire sum into the bank account of an unnamed nonprofit entity he controlled.
Andrew has been released on bail. His attorney has said he will plead not guilty.
The well-connected former White House staffer made a splash when he arrived in Vermont last spring, grabbing headlines in the Boston Globe and Inside Higher Ed. Democracy Builders Fund, a nonprofit Andrew helmed, purchased the 500-acre southern Vermont campus for a song, and promised to remake higher education for low-income, marginalized students from the ashes of the now-defunct Marlboro College.
Degrees of Freedom is a project of Democracy Builders. After Andrew’s arrest, Stone told the Bennington Banner the program would seek to become a separate nonprofit entity.
But even before the public face of Degrees of Freedom was charged with wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements to a financial institution, the project had hit some bumps in the road.
Despite the name of the project, Degrees of Freedom still does not have the right to confer any sort of degree, a fact acknowledged on its own website — albeit in the fine print.
A disclaimer buried at the bottom of its homepage says the “nonprofit hybrid leadership program” does not yet “possess a certificate of approval or a certificate of degree-granting authority from the Vermont State Board of Education to operate an independent school, college or university.” It goes on to say that it is “not yet accredited by any accrediting body or a candidate for accreditation by any accrediting body.”
That’s a problem for the project’s business model, which was premised on enrolling kids debt-free by pricing their programming around Pell Grant awards, a type of federal financial aid provided to low-income students.
Federal funds are only available to schools that meet certain criteria, including accreditation. To get around this, Degrees of Freedom had partnered with Doral College, a Florida-based higher education venture that primarily offers dual-enrollment classes to high school students, to deliver its online coursework.
But Doral, an offshoot of the for-profit charter school operator Academica, also doesn’t qualify for federal funds, according to its website. And while it was recently accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, the school can only guarantee that its credits will transfer to other DEAC-accredited institutions, as well as public universities in Florida, and a handful of private colleges.
Stone said Doral is working on qualifying for federal aid and had planned to be eligible before September. As a backup, Degrees of Freedom was seeking funding from donors, she said, though she suggested the money was not yet in hand.
“The plan was philanthropic support, but considering that we’re no longer opening in the fall, that is sort of irrelevant,” she said.
After close to a year on the scene in Vermont, the Marlboro project has also yet to submit any sort of application with the state to operate a school. In August, an official with the Agency of Education wrote to Andrew in alarm, according to communications provided to VTDigger following a public records request.
Pat Pallas Gray, an independent school consultant for the agency, told Andrew in an Aug. 21 email that Degrees of Freedom could not advertise college credit given that the organization had not yet secured approval to offer post-secondary credits or degrees from the State Board of Education. Doing so could result in a $1,000 fine and even jail time, she added.
“You need to immediately take down all advertisements for programs offered by Democracy Builders in VT to avoid further action,” Pallas Gray wrote, referring to an advertisement for the organization’s “Freedom Builders Fellowship.”
Andrew responded that day that students would be “enrolling in our non-profit’s partner institution that is not based in Vermont.”
It’s unclear whether that was satisfactory to the agency. No talk of enforcement actions came up again, at least in writing, according to the records provided to VTDigger. Agency officials and Andrew exchanged emails into March about the process of applying to operate either a K-12 school or a college, though he never did.
Still, Andrew declared April 8 in an email blasted out via Degrees of Freedom’s listserv, “We’re opening a college.”
Ted Fisher, a spokesperson for the Agency of Education, declined to make anyone from the agency available for an interview.
“We understand that (Degrees of Freedom) is in the process of taking steps to bring its website into compliance after a conversation with AOE in February,” Fisher wrote in an email, adding that the school appeared to have added a disclaimer to its website. He also declined to say whether the state believed Degrees of Freedom was operating within the bounds of Vermont regulations.
Whether or not the arrangement satisfies state regulators, Yan Cao, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a Washington, D.C. think tank, argues that it raises a number of red flags.
“Wow,” Cao said as she read the program description on the Degrees of Freedom website. “I’m really taken aback by this.”
For $9,000, Degrees of Freedom’s one-year “Freedom Year” program would provide students with test prep, five courses and admission to a “college or career-targeted program,” according to its website. For $18,000, its two-year “Liberation Launch” program promises admission into a “competitive college or selective vocational program.” It also suggests that students can “earn (an) associates,” presumably through Doral.
Early-college models can help high school students ultimately cut down on the cost of higher education, Cao said. And kids who attend well-resourced high schools get the kind of support Degrees of Freedom says it offers — college-level coursework, internship opportunities and counseling — at no cost.
Charging low-income students “for an approximation of the experience their more privileged peers enjoy for free,” she said, is “exactly the wrong way” to address inequality in education.
“What I’m concerned about is the idea of somebody spending two years to get an associate’s degree, so that they can apply to a selective vocational program that is like a nine-month program in welding,” said Cao, who previously worked at the project on predatory student lending at Harvard Law School’s Legal Services Center. “That to me doesn’t make a ton of sense as like an educational path to a well-paying profession.”
Stone, the CEO, said that Degrees of Freedom would not ask students to pay a dime out of pocket “if they were zero EFC.” EFC refers to “expected family contribution,” a formula set by law that colleges use to determine how much families can afford to pay.
She also provided paperwork indicating Doral College has seen many graduates transfer to four-year schools, including a handful of Ivy League colleges.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re sort of judged in our infancy,” she said. “We were pretty certain that we will be able to offer a quality of education for students that would be, you know, superior to what they may have received otherwise. And for a price that is accessible to those students.”
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