April 28, 2014

For-Profit College Offers Students Pizza To Lobby Against Obama Regulation

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While it storms government offices with high-priced lobbyists, the for-profit college industry also is aiming to flood Washington with cards and letters from their students and staff opposing President Obama’s gainful employment rule. This proposed regulation would, sensibly, cut off federal aid to career education programs that consistently leave students with debts they cannot repay.  Much to the disgust of teachers and other staff of these schools who reach out to me on a steady basis, predatory for-profit colleges are pressuring staff to write to the Administration and Congress, and offering students a slice of pizza, as well as misleading arguments, to do the same.

Aided by the DCI Group, a giant Republican lobbying and advocacy firm, Education Management Corporation (EDMC), the second biggest for-profit college company, engaged in major astroturfing, or faux grassroots lobbying, during the previous 2010-11 gainful employment battle, and it seems EDMC is seeking to repeat that effort now.

In February I reported on an email sent from EDMC management to staff urging them to become lobbyists for the cause by sending messages to the Obama Administration and Congress. The email contained a link to a colorful website that helps staff and students write and send their messages opposing the gainful employment rule.

Many EDMC current and former students and staff have said they would like to see more, not less, accountability for schools like theirs, so there can be a greater focus on teaching, learning, and training for careers. But EDMC continues its efforts to enlist these folks to serve the interests of management.

The EDMC email strongly urged staff to go to the website and start lobbying: “It will only take a few minutes of your time, but those few minutes could make a huge impact for our students and their ability to receive the financial aid that they deserve at the college of their choice.” One EDMC employee said to me about the email, “I’m not sure it gets more pathetic than these pleas.”

Since then, EDMC staff have sent me more such messages.  On April 23, Timothy Bush, campus president of EDMC’s Brown Mackie College in Tucson, AZ, emailed faculty and staff a message with the subject line, “Gainful Employment Letters.”  Bush writes, “TEAM Tucson, Please remember that our campus goal is 1,000 letters.  So far we are not tracking well and I know we can do better.  So, if you have not done so already, please visit the website below and submit your letters: www.SaveStudentChoice.com.”  Bush also wrote this month to alumni of his school, urging them to send letters through the same website because the gainful employment rule “could make it more difficult for some students to realize their educational goals” and “unfairly targets individuals who need [Washington’s] support.”

Meanwhile on the Facebook page of EDMC’s Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, management is asking students to “Stop by the library all week between 12-1 and 5-6 to sign in to SaveStudentChoice and enjoy a free piece of Pizza. Takes 5 minutes.” Since the actual cost to a student of attending the Art Institutes in recent years could be nearly twice as much as Harvard, gutting the gainful employment rule would actually be a pretty expensive piece of pizza. (The comments posted under the Facebook message make clear that former EDMC students now have learned this lesson, painfully.)

EDMC is currently under investigation by more than a dozen state attorneys general and is being sued for fraud by the U.S. Justice Department.

Corinthian Colleges, which is now under investigation by at least 15 state attorneys general, the U.S. Justice Department, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Department of Education, has a similar website seeking to mobilize its students, faculty, and staff. Like Corinthian’s student recruiting tactics, it’s full of misinformation. For example, it tells students that programs failing the gainful employment test, as many of Corinthian’s might, “would be discontinued or students would be forced to pay for tuition, books and fees without the benefit of federal grants and loans.” The truth is, any Corinthian program that flunks the test would be discontinued by the company, since Corinthian gets close to 90 percent of its revenue from federal aid. So scaring students into thinking they would have to start paying for everything is inappropriate.

Meanwhile, some former for-profit college students are speaking up for holding accountable the predatory colleges that buried them in debt.  At the suggestion of our coalition of student, veterans, civil rights, and consumer groups, Mike DiGiacomo last week filed a petition on the CREDO Mobilize site urging the Obama Administration to make the gainful employment  rule stronger, not weaker.  Mike is an Army vet who was left unemployed and $90,000 in debt by EDMC and another big for-profit college company, Career Education Corp.; I told his story in my ebook, Stealing America’s Future. Whether you are a former student or just a concerned citizen, you can go here to sign Mike’s petition; more than 13,500 people signed in the first three days.

This article also appears on Huffington Post.