Michelle Rhee with Florida Governor Rick Scott

Michelle Rhee writes in the Huffington Post that “some have questioned” why she would speak at the upcoming annual meeting of the largest trade group of for-profit colleges, APSCU, and she offers an answer.  I first raised this question 10 days ago, so I want to evaluate Rhee’s response.

First of all, Rhee, the former chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools, says some good things. Some very good things. Although she believes “there are a number of colleges and universities in this sector that are doing good work and providing a solid education for students,” “many” for-profit schools have “poor records.” She’s “willing to tell them the hard truths they need to hear.” The “problem” with the for-profit college sector “is that too many of its schools are failing students, and no one is being held accountable.” She intends “to tell the for-profit colleges that they need to do a better job of making sure their students are getting a good education, are graduating with meaningful degrees, and are able to do so without being saddled with unreasonable debt.” And if a school is “failing,” then “it should be shut down.”

Rhee goes further: “Some of these schools seem to be engaged in downright malicious behavior, cravenly taking advantage of students.” She cites an investigation by the Government Accountability Office that documented repeated cases of deceptive recruiting by for-profit colleges. And she praises the “gainful employment” rule issued last year by the Obama Administration to hold schools accountable for consistently leaving students deep in debt.

Bravo Michelle Rhee. I included in my April 20 post a parenthetical afterthought: “It’s always possible that she agreed to speak with the intent of telling the for-profits to clean up their act, but I doubt it.”  Maybe I was wrong to doubt, and maybe she will go to Las Vegas and bluntly speak the truth directly to the powerful for-profit colleges — that this industry, which gets nearly 90 percent of its $35 billion annual revenue from federal financial aid, has been ripping off taxpayers and ruining students’ lives, and that it needs to change course now.

But a few words of non-caution for Ms. Rhee.

Rhee does not say whether she’s getting paid to speak at the APSCU conference. Rhee reportedly has received speaking fees of up to $50,000, “plus first-class expenses.” Honestly I don’t mind so much the idea of taking a check to come and criticize your host, but often such a fee buys, if not allegiance, a bit of, shall we say, perspective and understanding, because people who speak for a fee want more speaking business, and because no one wants to seem ungrateful. If Rhee can overcome these factors and deliver an honest, pointed message, I’ll be the first to praise her. That is, if I can get access to what she says; as far as I know it’s not a public event. Maybe she’d be willing to release the text of her remarks.

But the more crucial point is this: Often in Washington, people — especially people lobbying for or trying to make nice with the for-profit college industry — say that there are “a few” bad actors in the sector that need to be held accountable.  (Rep. John Kline (D-MN), chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, warned against “regulation [that] could undermine an entire sector of colleges in the name of rooting out a few bad actors.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: “‘Overall, I firmly believe for-profit schools are doing a good job in training students,’ Duncan said…. But a few ‘bad actors’ are ‘doing a disservice’ to the entire industry.” Duncan again: “There are a ‘few bad apples’ among actors in the for-profit college sector.”)

The truth is, while there are indeed some quality programs in the sector, there are many, many rotten apples, because the lack of strong accountability standards has created a race to the bottom — the more you abuse students, the more money you make. More importantly, the bad apples that do the most harm are not some fly-by-night, strip mall, sole proprietor trade school.  The names of apples that have high prices and low graduation rates, that frequently leave students deep in debt, that have engaged in deceptive recruiting, and that are under investigation by state attorneys general and / or the federal government include ITT, Corinthian, University of Phoenix, Education Management Corp., Kaplan, Keiser, and Bridgepoint. These are all major, high-revenue for-profit colleges. And they are all members of APSCU. The same APSCU that attacked the GAO study cited by Rhee, and that lobbied relentlessly to water down and is now suing to overturn the gainful employment rule praised by Rhee. The same APSCU that, late last week, called President Obama’s directive to protect our troops and veterans from for-profit college abuses a “deeply unfortunate development.”

So just so we’re clear, Ms. Rhee, the car that picks you up at the airport is paid for by bad apples, the officials who greet you at the hotel are paid by the bad apples, and the people sitting at the best tables in the room you will address — bad apples.  So when you criticize this sector in your speech, don’t use the third person. You will be speaking to the worst offenders. Please do tell them those hard truths.

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Filed under: Lobbying, Plutocrats, Uncategorized

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