August 22, 2012

Congressman, After Hometown Criticism, Pulls Out Of Event At For-Profit College Owned by Big RNC Donor

Congressman, After Hometown Criticism, Pulls Out Of Event At For-Profit College Owned by Big RNC Donor
Representative Marlin Stutzman (R-Indiana)

While his House GOP colleagues are getting publicity for spouting bizarre ideas about rape and pregnancy, or jumping into the Sea of Galilee, Representative Marlin Stutzman of Indiana was planning to head today to the Fort Wayne campus of National College for an event promoted as a chance to inform unemployed veterans about new federal education benefits.

That sounds way more productive. However, as Fort Wayne’s JournalGazette noted in an editorial yesterday, National College is a for-profit school, and its record is controversial.  The paper reported that Fort Wayne mayor Tom Henry, slated to attend, was no longer coming. The editorial asserted that Stutzman’s attendance at the event “looks like more of an endorsement of National College than a message to veterans to thoroughly review their options before signing on with a for-profit school.”

A few minutes ago, in response to my call requesting comment, James Wegmann, communications director for Stutzman, sent me a press release from National College, dated August 21, that noted:

(Update: Congressman Marlin Stutzman’s visit originally planned for 22 August will be rescheduled for a future date.  Event will otherwise proceed as planned.)

While we don’t know what motivated Stutzman to commit to the event or to later withdraw — Wegmann hasn’t responded to my questions about that — records show that National College President Frank Longaker, together with his wife and son, have donated more than $150,000 to the Republican National Committee in the past 10 months, plus more than $30,000 in contributions to Mitt Romney and other candidates and committees, mostly Republican. Stutzman serves as a Deputy Whip for the House Republican Caucus.

The Longakers’ capacity for such largesse is not surprising given the lucrative nature of the for-profit college industry, and its rapid growth over the past decade. But it’s an industry that has engaged in repeated abuses, to the detriment of students and taxpayers. The industry gets upwards of 80 percent of its revenues from federal taxpayer dollars, to the tune of $32 billion a year. Government and media investigations have exposed that many for-profit colleges engage in deceptive and coercive recruiting, offer high-priced, low-quality programs, and leave a high percentage of students deep in debt.

President Obama has specifically highlighted that some of these schools prey on U.S. veterans and servicemembers, as has Holly Petraeus, who oversees veterans issues for the new federal consumer finance watchdog agency.  Many leading national veterans organizations are speaking out and urging stronger protections against abuses by for-profit colleges, which take much of the federal funding targeted at veterans’ education.

National College, based in Roanoke, Virginia, has 30 campuses across Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. It offers programs in fields including health care, accounting, information technology, and business.

Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, who leads a bipartisan group of 30 state attorneys general investigating fraud by for-profit colleges, has sued National College, claiming the school published false information about the job placement rates of its students.  When he filed the suit, Conway said, “National College is putting its bottom line before the hopes and dreams of students who are simply trying to better their lives.” National College tried and failed to get the judge in that case to shield court proceedings from the public.

A National College spokesperson defended the school’s record to the Fort Wayne JournalGazette, claiming strong retention and placement rates. He criticized Petraeus’s remarks on the industry as “uninformed and incendiary.”  Frank Longaker himself is a highly-decorated Vietnam veteran.

But even if it were true that National College is performing better than some of the worst for-profit colleges, it is harming students and taxpayers by supporting lobbying efforts to block higher standards for these schools. National College is a member of APSCU, the for-profit college trade association, which, working closely with the House GOP leadership, has lobbied aggressively to defeat measures to hold bad for-profit colleges accountable for waste, fraud, and abuse with taxpayer dollars. Longaker has also donated to APSCU’s political action committee.

A review of campaign contributions by the Longakers shows that, in addition to $151,600 to the Republican National Committee, Frank Longaker and his wife Judith have each given the maximum contribution of $2,500 to Mitt Romney.  The Longakers have donated smaller amounts to House Education and Workforce Committee chairman John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who oversees federal aid to education issues; House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, Republican of Florida; and Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.

Records show no contributions from the Longakers to Stutzman, who is chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. That subcommittee is charged with looking out for veterans’ career interests, such as protecting them against predatory colleges and misleading recruitment pitches.

Stutzman was also the invited guest speaker at the grand opening of National College’s Fort Wayne campus in April 2011, but I haven’t confirmed whether he actually attended.

Perhaps Stutzman’s decision not to attend the event is another indication that citizens are increasingly aware of — and concerned about — the abuses of for-profit colleges. Where in the past Members of Congress could act to befriend predatory schools and shield them from accountability, confident that industry lobbyists were watching and the public was not, the tide may be turning.

Citizens attending town halls and campaign events this fall should keep up the momentum. They should ask their members of Congress whether they stand with wealthy for-profit colleges who have abused the public trust or whether they stand instead with the veterans, low-income people, and others in their community whose dreams have been crushed by predatory schools.