March 19, 2018

For-Profit College Lobbyist Blames Obama, John Oliver, New York Times, OITNB, for Industry Woes


For-Profit College Lobbyist Blames Obama, John Oliver, New York Times, OITNB, for Industry Woes

In a recent essay, top for-profit college lobbyist Steve Gunderson, a Newt Gingrich crony and former GOP congressman (R-WI), blames Barack Obama, John Oliver, Adam Sandler, the New York Times, “Orange is the New Black,” and others for his industry’s dramatic decline in fortunes.

“Years of relentless attacks from leading political figures, including the president, left a sector that is much smaller,” write Gunderson, head of the lobby group CECU, and his subordinate, the opportunistic Michael Dakduk, as they recount the sharp drop in student enrollments at for-profit schools.

Gunderson’s essay, posted on the industry website Career Education Review, then ticks off a long list of reports, media exposes, and entertainment programming critical of the schools he represents: investigations by the Government Accountability Office and then-Senator Tom Harkin’s HELP committee; “biased” articles in the New York Times and on my blog; the Adam Sandler movie “Grown Ups 2” and the Mark Wahlberg vehicle “Broken City”; episodes of the TV shows “Orange Is the New Black,” “Ray Donovan,” “The Good Wife” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”; John Grisham’s novel “The Rooster Bar”; reports by Obama Department of Education official Robert Shireman and his team at the non-profit Century Foundation; and the new blockbuster documentary “Fail State,” produced in association with Dan Rather.

It’s super-dumb to post such a long list of people, including many prominent people, who have criticized you. At some point, folks might think, maybe it’s not them; maybe it’s you. And it is you, Steve Gunderson and the for-profit college industry, it is you.

CECU had come to be dominated by large publicly-traded or private equity-controlled college chains, and under Gunderson, rather than accept reforms and advance the good-quality career training schools, it defended the sector’s worst actors and pursued an aggressive strategy to oppose all Obama administration accountability measures, backed by campaign contributions to members of Congress and the hiring of every lobbyist in town. This strategy completely failed, as the industry’s all-out lobbying onslaught triggered greater government, media, and public scrutiny, and the truths that were revealed finally pushed the Obama administration, in its final years, to stop succumbing to pressure from industry lobbyists and start taking real action to protect students and taxpayers.

Many former CECU members — including Corinthian Colleges, Education Management Corp., ITT Tech, Kaplan, Career Education Corporation, DeVry, Bridgepoint, ATI, and FastTrain College — and some of its current members, like Daymar, Lincoln Tech, and CollegeAmerica, have in recent years been under investigation or taken to court by federal and state law enforcement agencies for deceptive practices. Some big companies shut down, and some executives went to prison. Many of the companies that didn’t close were in free-fall, their bad deeds exposed, with shuttered campuses, ousted CEOs, departing board members. CECU’s membership and revenue dwindled.

Then Gunderson got very lucky, when the president of Trump University was elected president of the United States, and he installed for-profit education investor Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. (Although Gunderson actually makes the absurd claim that the issue of the Obama for-profit college rules helped propel Trump into the White House: “even those who advocated for such ideological regulations must now admit their rigidity contributed to the public revolt called the 2016 election.” Nope.) Even more fortuitous for Gunderson, he had long ago hired hometown girl Callista Bisek for his congressional office, where she met Speaker Gingrich and soon become his wife. At CECU, Gunderson had hired Gingrich to promote his industry, and then Gingrich became an early and ardent Trump supporter. All the crony connections were in place for a return to government complicity in predatory abuses by for-profit colleges, and that is exactly what has happened.

Gunderson’s article says that college fraud is indeed a bad thing, and that, now that the “ideological attack” and unfair rules of the Obama administration have been swept aside by DeVos, there can be be new “civic leadership” and new Trump rules “that provide equity, fairness and balance in ways that can stand the test of time regardless of which political party is in power in the future.”

Yet, despite this call for a coming together for reasonable rules, Gunderson expressly ties his industry’s success to the success of the Republican Party, saying that after Trump’s election “the for-profit sector collectively breathed a deep sigh of relief” but that “we may not have the luxury of Republican control after upcoming elections.” And rather than act magnanimously, and with greater regard for students and taxpayers, in recent meetings to replace the Obama rules the for-profit college representatives pushed for the stripping of nearly all accountability measures, demanding replacement regulations that are almost comical in their denials of protections for the public and their licensing of predatory behavior. The DeVos Department has been happy to oblige. (Gunderson briefly stopped by the last round of these meetings last week, but mostly left attendance to underlings.)

Gunderson’s blaming of everyone under the sun for his industry’s woes is a lie and a disgrace. His industry’s current ownership of the Department of Education will cause immense suffering to the next generation of veterans, low-income single moms, and others who will be deceived into overpriced, poor quality education programs and a lifetime of overwhelming debt. The bad actors in his industry will be able to make a lot of money off this pain, including by reorganizing as phony non-profits and thus further evading scrutiny. But their arrogant and reckless strategy may well come back to haunt Gunderson and his industry, as it contains within it the seeds of its own destruction.