October 27, 2014

2014 Campaign Shows Growing Public Disdain for Predatory For-Profit Colleges


In the 2o12 election campaign, when a reporter asked GOP candidate Mitt Romney what he planned to do about higher education and college affordability, Romney praised for-profit colleges, and particularly one school, Florida’s Full Sail University, for its ability to “hold down the cost of their education.” It was eventually exposed that: (1) Full Sail was perhaps the third most expensive college in America, (2) Full Sail’s owners were heavy contributors to the Romney campaign, and (3) Romney’s own private equity firm was actually invested in Full Sail.  But whatever Romney’s motives in singling out this sector, it was notable that a leading office seeker was willing to praise the for-profit college industry, and that such praise did not create much concern with the public.

Times have changed dramatically since then. In 2014, numerous candidates for office have made a point of stressing their efforts to stand up for students by fighting the abuses of predatory for-profit colleges. Hillary Clinton also has singled out the for-profit college industry for criticism.  Meanwhile, even though the for-profit college industry continues to pour campaign contributions into Capitol Hill coffers, I haven’t found any 2014 candidates out there who, like the 2012 Romney, have affirmatively stressed their support for the industry. HBO comedian Bill Maher has even made an entrenched GOP House chairman’s support for the industry a central basis for his effort to oust that incumbent from office, while John Oliver offered a devastating attack on the industry on his own HBO show.  The numerous law enforcement investigations, and the overwhelming evidence that predatory colleges are deceiving, overcharging, and under-educating students, while taking in billions in taxpayer money, has made this industry toxic in campaign discourse.

This turn of events comes as President Obama faces a critical decision about issuing a new “gainful employment” rule that would hold cut off federal aid to career colleges that consistently leave students buried in debt. With the President and many of his policies currently unpopular on the campaign trail, the Administration might consider that taking a tough stance regarding predatory college companies that rip off students and taxpayers alike would not only be the right thing to do, but also would garner approval from the public.

Here are some examples of how predatory for-profit colleges are pariahs on the 2016 campaign trail:

  • Wisconsin Democratic attorney general candidate Susan Happ released a plan on October 3 to work with other state attorneys general and federal agencies to crack down on for-profit colleges that harm students. Her plan includes imposing “hefty penalties” for consumer violations and providing veterans with better information about for-profit schools, which Happ charges targets vets with deceptive, high-pressure sales tactics.
  • Massachusetts Democratic attorney general candidate Maura Healey, too, has made an aggressive plan to take on abusive for-profit colleges a key part of her campaign. Healey calls the industry’s tactics a “definition of a public policy disaster” and says the next state has a “moral” responsibility to lead on this issue. The current Massachusetts AG, Martha Coakley, is running for governor, and is touting her own strong record of investigating this industry and punishing bad actors.
  • The Chicago Reader reported on how Illinois governor candidate Bruce Rauner “makes money from for-profit schools and worthless degrees,” noting that Rauner’s private equity firm and foundation have invested in EDMC and other for-profit college companies with a record of deceiving and abusing students. Rather than embracing Rauner’s connections to the for-profit college industry, Rauner’s spokesman tried to minimize them.
  • U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), up for reelection this year, has been a national leader in stressing the need for strong action to curb the abuses of for-profit colleges.
  • At Fort Campbell, TN, on October 21, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, a 2015 Democratic candidate for governor who is the leader of the 37 state attorneys general working together to probe the for-profit college industry, stood with the new Tennessee attorney general, Republican Herbert Slattery, and Holly Petraeus of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as Petraeus discussed efforts to protect service members and veterans from for-profit college scams.
  • Meanwhile Bill Maher has made Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chair of the House education committee, the subject of his “Flip a District” project, singling out Kline’s slavish support for for-profit colleges and the piles of campaign cash the industry has given him. Over the weekend the Minneapolis Star-Tribune predictably supported returning the powerful incumbent Kline to office, but made a point of warning that Kline “needs to more aggressively hold disreputable for-profit colleges accountable.” Similarly, the Kansas City Star backed incumbent Republican attorney general Derek Schmidt to return to office, but criticized him for his failure “to get involved in cases that could help Kansans, such as joining with other attorneys general in actions concerning abuses by for-profit colleges.”
  • And, in another measure of the strong political tide against predatory colleges, Hillary Clinton, addressing a University of Nevada Las Vegas audience on October 13, attacked “fly-by-night for-profit schools” and predatory lenders that “exploit students.”  It probably has not escaped Clinton’s notice that Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has been a strong critic of the for-profit college industry.

Finally, while a number of members of Congress submitted comments to the Obama administration opposing the original version of the gainful employment rule in 2011, this year not a single member of Congress wrote to object generally to the rule.

Many politicians remain willing to take for-profit college money. But few remain willing to defend this pariah industry when facing voters.

This article also appears on Huffington Post.