December 2, 2021

15 Higher Education Stories Worth Investigating

15 Higher Education Stories Worth Investigating

As we approach the end of 2021, here are some higher education stories that I wish I had more time to pursue now. Some of them I’ve dug into pretty deeply already, while others I haven’t done much with yet. If you have info on these matters, please let me know. Or investigate them yourself.

These are largely stories, one way or another, about what happens when government, through weak rules and lax enforcement, allows college operators to put pursuit of big profits over the interests of students and taxpayers.

1. The New York Daily News exposed last month that the president and owner of for-profit ASA College, one Alex Shchegol, who was forced out by his board three years ago amid allegations of egregious sexual misconduct, recently ousted most of the school’s board members and regained control. The Daily News mentioned that re-hiring Shchegol, who has been accused of rape, coercing students into sex, and sending unwanted pictures of his penis, was defended at a Florida hearing by Peter Leyton, a lawyer representing ASA; Leyton said Shchegol dumped the old board because his expertise was needed to reverse declining enrollments. The Daily News didn’t mention that Leyton is a long-time for-profit college industry lawyer who served for more than a decade on the board of the industry’s main lobbying group, now called CECU.

The Daily News also mentioned that ASA, which has campuses in New York and Florida, plus courses online, received some $16 million in federal taxpayer money to enroll students, the majority of whom are people of color, in 2019-20. What we don’t know is whether the U.S. Department of Education plans to re-evaluate federal aid eligibility for ASA, attendance at which, under Shchegol, has led to poor outcomes for many students. The school’s accreditor, which serves as a gatekeeper for federal aid eligibility, already placed ASA on warning status in October, citing a range of concerns about governance and other issues. (Shchegol denies the sexual misconduct charges.) [UPDATE 12-08-21: ASA’s accreditor, Middle States Commission on Higher Education, has now placed the school on probation, finding the school out of compliance with the applicable standards and requiring ASA to submit new information and a plan for a teach-out of its students.]

2. Nicole Carnagey, the chief operating officer of California for-profit Summit College, is apparently being considered for a job running a larger school. Wouldn’t the Department of Education, or that school’s accreditor, if not the school itself, be concerned that Carnagey spent almost twelve years, rising to a senior executive role, at Corinthian Colleges until that company, one of the worst predatory college operations, collapsed under the weight of law enforcement probes in 2015? Would the fact that Carnagey ran Corinthian’s California operations concern Vice President Harris, who noted in her 2020 Democratic convention speech that, as California’s attorney general, she sued Corinthian for abuses in the state, including predatory recruiting, false advertising, and fraud? Personal accountability for top executives of Corinthian and other for-profit college scams has been rare. It shouldn’t be that way.

3. Another awful collapsed college chain is the Center for Excellence in Higher Education (CEHE). After a Colorado court, following trial, sided with that state’s attorney general and found the company liable for deceiving students; and its accreditor, ACCSC, acted to drop the company’s schools, including online giant Independence University; and finally the U.S. Department of Education restricted the flow of federal aid, CEHE shut down classes and laid off most staff. But CEHE, which then got a partial reversal and remand of the Colorado verdict and is seeking to regain accreditation through legal proceedings, insisted to the locked-out students that it will continue seeking to collect on the high-interest EduPlan private loans they took out — even though the Colorado court concluded that these EduPlan loans were part of the company’s illegal scheme. Who owns AR Management, the company that administers these loans? Perhaps CEHE head and Ayn Rand worshipper Carl Barney? And what is the status of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s investigation into CEHE’s private loan practices? (UPDATE 04-20-22: A Utah federal magistrate ruled today that CEHE must provide the CFPB with information on its private loan operation.)

Also, will the University of Maryland, or Maryland state agencies, be looking at the relationships between CEHE and University business school professor Rajshree Agarwal? Professor Agarwal joined the CEHE board of directors, giving the company’s schools a public endorsement from the traditional higher education world, at a time when CEHE was under investigation for deceptive and predatory practices by multiple federal and state law enforcement agencies. Meanwhile CEHE in 2019 provided $400,000 in grants to the University of Maryland (grants that Agarwal claims as her own on her CV), and Barney boasted on his blog over the summer that he and his foundation are providing Ayn Rand scholarships and grants for “intellectuals” at schools including the University of Maryland.  Maryland’s flagship state university was taking funding from CEHE and Barney, which got much of that money by fleecing low-income students and federal taxpayers, while a U MD professor’s cred was being used to validate the predatory school. Is that how higher education is supposed to work?

4. Another corrupt college operation has mostly been under the radar. In 2016, I wrote about Ultimate Medical Academy (UMA), a Tampa-based career school that converted from for-profit to nonprofit status in a troubling deal, and that featured on its management team some former top officials of disgraced Trump University. The school was getting $150 million a year from taxpayer-funded student aid, yet almost no higher ed expert or official I spoke with had ever heard of it. Right after I published, and in the years since, I’ve been contacted by more than a dozen former and current UMA staff regarding predatory practices at the school — deceptive and aggressive recruiting, financial aid abuses, pressure on faculty and staff to keep students enrolled, and bad outcomes (low earnings, big loan debt) for many ex-students.

The school’s IRS filings reveal big salaries and payouts for executives and insiders of the supposedly non-profit operation.

A 2017-19 review by the U.S. Department of Education found violations in several areas, including disbursing federal aid to students with invalid high school diplomas, but the probe was closed after UMA promised to do better.

Journalists, the education department, and the IRS should be taking a close look at UMA.

5. Predatory Ashford University, exposed at a 2011 Senate hearing as, in the word’s of committee chairman Tom Harkin, “an absolute scam,” is right now on trial, along with its owner, Zovio, in a San Diego courtroom, facing a case brought by the state’s attorney general, who alleges unfair and fraudulent business practices. Ashford has received hundreds of millions from U.S. taxpayers, often with dismal results for students. I’m getting dispatches from a courtroom observer, but is any media covering the trial?

Maybe citizens of neighboring Arizona would be interested, especially given that that state’s flagship school now owns Ashford, rebranded University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC), in a shady partnership with Zovio, which still runs the school and is still engaged in predatory practices there. (Check out these Yelp reviews.) Last month I spoke with a former Ashford / UAGC instructor who said school higher-ups pressured teachers to give passing grades so students would remain enrolled and paying tuition, even for students who were incapable of doing the work or submitted obviously plagiarized papers.

Education reporters might also be interested in UAGC’s application, apparently still pending at the Department of Education, to get preferential non-profit status, and the recent actions of the school’s accreditor, WASC, to demand the school explain how it plans to straighten up.

Does Zovio’s new CEO, introduced on Wednesday, have answers?

6. On a parallel track, another predatory for-profit school, Kaplan University, is now disguised as Purdue University Global, operating under a dubious arrangement between Kaplan’s former owner, Graham Holdings, and Purdue president Mitch Daniels. How’s that going these days?

7. Florida Career College, which, numerous former and current employees have told me, engages in deceptive and fraudulent practices and will “enroll anyone with a pulse” to get their federal aid dollars, is being sued by former students for targeting Black people for their predatory programs. Long-time for-profit college industry lawyer Keith Zakarin and a former George W. Bush White House lawyer are representing International Education Corporation (IEC), parent company of Florida Career College, in the case. Over the summer they managed to convince a Florida federal judge (Trump appointee Roy Altman) to uphold fine-print clauses in the students’ enrollment agreements barring them from suing the school and requiring them to pursue any grievances in arbitration, a process that favors corporate defendants. The Obama administration had issued a rule barring colleges that get taxpayer aid from enforcing these oppressive mandatory arbitration clauses, but Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos erased that regulation. (Now the Biden administration is moving to reinstate it.)

In recent briefs filed with the court, the students’ lawyers, from the Harvard Project on Predatory Student Lending, ask the judge to reconsider, arguing, among other things, that the students had a right to sue because DeVos had not yet revoked the Obama rule at the time they sued. They also argue that forcing the students into arbitration would violate FCC’s agreement with the Department of Education for participating in the federal aid program, where they promised not to do that.

The Harvard project’s filings also include the transcript of a deposition of IEC vice president Bob Adler in which he makes a number of telling admissions, including that: FCC recruiters cold call people who may have been looking on job training websites and have never expressed interest in attending the school; FCC instructs admissions representatives to emphasize “urgency” in a prospective student’s need to enroll; FCC makes no effort to determine whether prospective students have criminal records that may prevent them from obtaining the jobs they are training for; FCC has no policy for rejecting applicants who lack a high school diploma or GED and are unwilling to take a qualifying test; FCC admissions representatives are not required to verify English language fluency, even though the school’s programs are in English; FCC financial aid staff provide students with documents showing the loans they have signed up for only “on request’; and FCC does not follow up to ensure that its graduates are employed in the field for more than one week.

Multiple FCC employees tell me that IEC and FCC are abusing the federal “ability-to-benefit” rules by enrolling an extremely high volume of students who lack a high school diploma, and also are enrolling many students who don’t speak enough English to comprehend the classes.

In declarations the students’ lawyers have submitted in the case, former FCC employees report egregious abuses at the school — echoing allegations that employees provided to me last year.

Former FCC admissions representative Twyla Prindle said that: many prospective students did not understand the costs of the programs they were enrolling in, and could not afford them; prospective students who did not want to enroll were pressured into talking with at least three FCC representatives before they could leave campus; FCC enrolled students whom it knew would not be able to jobs in their fields, such as students with criminal records and students with intellectual disabilities; students without high school diplomas were assisted by proctors in passing a test in order to enroll; FCC admissions representatives were yelled at by supervisors for failing to meet enrollment quotas; and  FCC’s Jacksonville admissions director would pressure black students to enroll, but would provide white students recommendations for other options.

A former FCC loan collections officer, Howard Glantz, declared that: FCC’s financial aid process during enrollment was rushed, and a high percentage of FCC students did not understand what they owed; FCC collections staff were paid bonuses based on how much they collected from students; the purpose of FCC’s high-pressure collections process was to help FCC meet its legal obligation to maintain at least 10 percent of its revenue from sources other than federal aid; and FCC faculty falsified class attendance records, vouching for students who were not actually there.

Kenneth Lundy, who focused on recruiting veterans, compared FCC’s operations to a used car dealership. He said that: some prospective students were invited for “job interviews” when the real intent was to enroll them in the school; IEC officials routinely berated FCC employees for not meeting admissions targets; and IEC’s CEO, Fardad Fateri, was personally involved in monitoring the recruitment performance of recruiters.

Given the powerful evidence of its abuses, how is IEC/FCC still receiving tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, and the Department’s seal of approval to enroll students, every year?

8. As Inside Higher Ed reported last month, Ohio’s Eastern Gateway Community College radically cut instruction expenses after partnering with a for-profit company called Student Resource Center. The deal has made millions for Student Resource Center, which has been taking 50 percent of the profits, as enrollment, mostly online, has skyrocketed, but the school is now in trouble with its accreditor, Higher Learning Commission, over educational quality. Student Resource Center CEO Michael Perik, a long-time education industry executive, has strong ties to Eastern Gateway’s president, and faculty and staff at the school say, according to Inside Higher Ed that Perik “seems to have unchecked power in academic matters at Eastern Gateway.”

As we reported in 2019, Mike DeWine, now Ohio’s governor but in 2018 its attorney general, engaged in discussions with the collapsing Dream Center Education Holdings (DCEH) and the Betsy DeVos Department of Education about Eastern Gateway acquiring Argosy University from DCEH. Under the plan, Michael Perik’s operation would have received the servicing contract for Argosy after Eastern Gateway bought it, and DCEH would have kept a piece of the action. DeVos’s team, led by Diane Auer Jones, later insisted that the Eastern Gateway servicing contract for Argosy would go to a company called Colbeck, though Perik and others could get subcontracts. Colbeck ended up buying many of the DCEH schools, but the deal with Eastern Gateway didn’t happen. However, the deal-making efforts suggest that Perik had even bigger dreams for making money off state-owned Eastern Gateway. What is his next move?

9. When retired Army Major General James “Spider” Marks, a familiar cable news guest on national security issues, offered comments (echoing his written submission) at a Department of Education public hearing in October, he attacked recent bipartisan legislation that was aimed at protecting U.S. military service members and veterans by strengthening the federal rule which prohibits for-profit colleges from obtaining more than 90 percent of their revenue from federal aid. Marks referred to this federal 90-10 rule as “arbitrary” and said the new legislation, closing a loophole that motivated aggressive recruiting of veterans and service members, would actually harm military students, even though a large number of national veterans groups strongly supported the provision. Marks did not mention in his statement he previously worked as “Military Advisor to the President” and “Executive Dean, College of Security and Criminal Justice” at the country’s biggest for-profit college and one of the biggest recipients of G.I. Bill dollars, the University of Phoenix, a school that has been caught by federal authorities engaging in improper recruiting on military bases and running deceptive TV ads. Marks did identify himself as an advisor to the Centurion Military Alliance. Who funds that?

10. Also, who is funding the Defense of Freedom Institute, a new think tank headed by Robert Eitel, who was one of the top higher education aides at the Trump-DeVos Department of Education and before that worked at not one but two of the worst predatory college operations, Zovio (then called Bridgepoint) and Perdoceo (then called Career Education Corporation)? The group says it will fight the Biden education agenda through lawsuits and “vigorous oversight” of the regulatory process, and it’s already advocating for public money for religious schools. Is the group, which is already wealthy or connected enough to hire as its lawyers both Bill Barr and David Boies, getting or seeking any funding from billionaire Betsy DeVos, who is quoted in their recent press release? Are there connections to the ultra-wealthy non-profit Strada Education Network, which repurposes old student loan profits to support and invest in for-profit colleges, and is headed by former Bush deputy education secretary William Hansen, who sits on the Perdoceo board of directors? [UPDATE 03-07-22: DeVos and the Defense of Freedom Institute have filed an amicus brief in a Supreme Court prayer in school case, and their lawyers are from DC mega-firm WilmerHale, supplier of too many lawyers for the Biden administration. The new think tank really does appear to be spending big.)

11. The New York Times‘ media columnist Ben Smith published an article in August, headlined “You’ve Never Heard of the Biggest Digital Media Company in America,” about South Carolina-based Red Ventures (barely 100 yards over the state border from suburban Charlotte, NC). Smith notes that the company owns popular travel websites Lonely Planet and The Points Guy, tech site CNET, and Healthline, plus “the education advice site BestColleges.” But the sophisticated Mr. Smith missed a piece of the story: BestColleges may be styled as an advice site, but its searches quickly lead visitors not to the “best” colleges, but to ones that pay to advertise on the site, some of them schools with records of misleading, overcharging, and abusing students, such as American Intercontinental, the University of Phoenix, and Purdue Global. And BestColleges isn’t the only shady lead generation site run by Red Ventures; we came across, for starters,, which feeds into the same search engine that spits out the names of online schools.

12. In 2018, California for-profit San Joaquin Valley College (SJVC) acquired health care career school Carrington College from the much larger Adtalem Global Education group (formerly DeVry). An industry source questions how SJVC has the capacity to run Carrington, which operates in larger markets and relies more on major advertising. This source says wealthy and powerful college baron Arthur Keiser, who runs some big college operations and appears to have gained influence over yet another school, St. Andrews University, has been meeting regularly with the owners of SJVC.  Any connection to the Carrington deal? (Also, has any college president prior to St. Andrews’s head, Keith Wade, made alumns sign a nondisclosure agreement laden with heavy digital rights management before they can read a transcript of his campus meeting with other alums?)

13. Keiser also has long been a central player in the for-profit lobbying group CECU. What did that group mean when it boasted in its annual report last month that it had forged “new partnerships” with pro-student groups including the Education Trust, Third Way, and the National Student Legal Defense Network? And in the “more than 50 meetings with the Biden Administration” the CECU report boasts of, what Biden officials attended? Also, what will be CECU’s next moves if, as some expect, wealthy California beauty school owner Lynelle Lynch, who took over the reins of Bellus Academy from her husband, becomes the next chair of the group?

14. The Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, an online school, sends a stream of press releases celebrating its growth and successes. The school has been bringing in some $27 million a year, three-quarters of that from Department of Education grants and loans. Did you know that Escoffier’s founder, Jack Larson, was also the founder of Career Education Corporation, now called Perdoceo, one of the most egregiously predatory companies in the industry, until he left, suddenly, in 2006? Larson, who also worked at other predatory college chains, boasts that while at CEC he “acquired renowned brands, including Le Cordon Bleu Schools North America.” But that culinary school, after it was bought by CEC, eventually faced major legal consequences for deceiving students.

15. Finally, what does it say about the promise of the Internet for bringing education to the masses — rather than just offering endless scams — that edX, the online platform created in 2012 by Harvard and MIT to offer free lectures by the world’s greatest professors, has been acquired by 2U, an online program provider that is getting increasing negative attention for turning numerous traditional universities into predatory operations through overpriced online programs?  While the free online edX lectures will remain, they will now serve as lead generators for 2U’s expensive degree offerings.

UPDATE 12-08-21:

Here are a few more stories worth pursuing:

16. In item(8) above, we referenced Colbeck Capital Management and its 2019 takeover (which we first reported) — with the backing of the Betsy DeVos Department of Education — of many of the career schools previously operated by Dream Center Education Holdings (and, before that, Education Management Corp.).  Colbeck, a for-profit investment firm, is operating the schools — South University and multiple Art Institutes campuses — through a non-profit foundation it set up and a for-profit servicing company it runs.

As we also were the first to report, while the Dream Center was in charge, in 2018, two Art Institutes falsely represented themselves as accredited, when in fact the accreditor had demoted the schools to unaccredited “candidate” status. Non-profit colleges may receive federal aid while in candidate status, but for-profit schools are not permitted to do so, and at the time the Department had not yet approved the conversion of any Dream Center schools from for-profit to non-profit. So, as a House Education and Labor Committee investigation showed, in order to justify the illegal continued flow of taxpayer dollars, DeVos’s aides purported to retroactively deem the schools non-profit — a move for which the committee could find no precedent.

Consistent with this shady maneuver by DeVos and her top higher education aide Diane Auer Jones, a former for-profit college executive, South University currently describes itself on its Twitter profile as “a private, nonprofit institution.”

15 Higher Education Stories Worth Investigating

The terms of South’s 2019 temporary program participation agreement with the Department are consistent with DeVos’s approval of the school’s bid to be treated as non-profit. But DeVos and Jones are gone, and the deal they made to let for-profit Colbeck manage the non-profit schools remains troubling. Is it the case that the Department of Education has given South leave to market itself to students as non-profit, or is there a problem here?

A bigger potential problem is the enormous volume of federal COVID relief grants and loans South has obtained, according to its December 2020 financial statements — at that point $12.8 million in CARES grants plus a $50 million loan from the Federal Reserve’s Main Street Lending Program. The Art Institutes got at least another $10 million in COVID aid. Some of that money, on top of the regular flow of federal grants and loans, would be owed to Studio Enterprise, the for-profit venture servicing the schools for Colbeck.

As the Colbeck-run schools — part of a predatory college empire that then-U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch in 2015 called “a high pressure recruitment mill” — show signs of struggling and fraying, is the Department of Education making sure that all this federal aid is going to educating students, as opposed to making Colbeck wealthier before the whole thing comes crashing down?

17. Keiser University, whose politically powerful “Chancellor and CEO” Arthur Keiser we discussed in item (12) above, recently announced that the accreditor for its physician assistant program, ARC-PA, “has accepted the voluntary withdrawal of the Keiser University PA Program from the ARC-PA accreditation process,” effective December 31, and that the Keiser PA program “will not accept any new students for enrollment” and “will close the program no later than December 31.” What happened? Citing their policies, an ARC-PA spokesperson said, “any questions regarding a program’s accreditation history should be directed to the program or institution. The ARC-PA has nothing more to add than what is posted on our website.” Keiser University has not yet responded to my request for comment. A former Keiser official told me, “They finally agreed to close the program instead of having it taken away from them.”

In addition to wanting to know what happened with Keiser’s physician’s assistant program, I still would like to know: How can Arthur Keiser, whose schools have reached settlements of lawsuits and investigations with the Justice Department, Florida attorney general, and the IRS, and who has been sued by his mother for fraud and theft in connection with the operations of the schools, remain the chair of NACIQI, the Department of Education’s advisory committee on higher education quality?

18. An email obtained under an open records request indicates that in October members of a non-profit group called Presidents Forum met with U.S. Under Secretary of Education James Kvaal and with Eloy Ortiz Oakley, temporary senior advisor to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. The somewhat under-the-radar Presidents Forum describes itself as a “membership organization of college and university presidents and chancellors as well as leading education stakeholders committed to reinventing higher education for our diverse student population – traditional, non-traditional, and adult learners.”

The email and the Presidents Forum website reflect that the group’s membership is heavy on heads of for-profit colleges, such as Capella University, and non-profit and state schools, such as Purdue University Global (formerly for-profit Kaplan University), that aggressively market their programs, as well as some more traditional schools, including top HBCU Howard University and some community colleges.

Indeed the Presidents Forum website shows Oakley, who is at the Department on leave from his job as Chancellor of the California Community Colleges system, side by side with Wade Dyke, the president of American Public University System (APUS), which, despite its name, is a for-profit school.

15 Higher Education Stories Worth Investigating

Just days after the meeting between Department officials and Presidents Forum members, APUS and the California community colleges (where Oakley is still officially the chancellor) entered into a deal that APUS touted as allowing graduates of these community colleges “to seamlessly transfer to APUS as a junior – with no loss of credit.” While CCC later claimed to me that it was just a routine arrangement, its Acting Chancellor Daisy Gonzales had enthusiastically praised it when it was announced, and some higher education experts raised concerns because of APUS’s high dropout and loan default rates — and its settlement with Massachusetts’ attorney general over alleged predatory enrollment practices. {UPDATE 01-24-22: Now back at CCC from his stint at the Department of Education, Chancellor Oakley announced he had cancelled the agreement with APUS.)

Beyond questions about the meeting, its timing, and Oakley’s role, the email reflects that the Presidents Forum executive director is James Manning, formerly a long-time Department of Education official. Manning rose to a top Department role under Betsy DeVos, overseeing at one time both higher education policy and the office of Federal Student Aid, which is supposed to enforce legal compliance by both colleges and student loan operators.

At that point, Manning faced criticism in 2018 from Democratic senators Catherine Cortez Masto (NV), Dick Durbin (IL), Elizabeth Warren (MA), and Kamala Harris (CA) over potential conflicts of interest.

The senators noted that before returning to the Department under DeVos, Manning had been paid $110,000 for work as a consultant by USA Funds, a student loan guarantee and debt collection agency run by William Hansen. In December 2016, USA Funds transferred its federal student loan business to Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation. Under the deal, Great Lakes provides annual payments to USA Funds, which changed its name to Strada Education Network, an operation we mentioned in item (10); Strada now seems to exist mostly to pay big salaries to Hansen and other top executives, to invest, with private equity firms, in for-profit education, and to make “charitable” grants that often seem to align with the organization’s investment goals.

The senators expressed concern that Manning’s work at the Department could benefit Strada and its private equity partners.

Manning and Strada denied any conflict of interest existed. But Manning’s consulting work for Hansen’s USA Funds was not the first time the two men collaborated. When Bill Hansen was Deputy Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, Jim Manning served as his chief of staff, at a time when the Department came under significant scrutiny for weak oversight of federal student loan companies that engaged in illegal practices.

Hansen, as we noted above, also sits on the board of Perdoceo, operator of predatory American Intercontinental University and Colorado Technical University.

And one more connection: Besides Manning, there are three other Presidents Forum employees listed on the website, and one of them is senior adviser Taylor Hansen. Manning also twice references Hansen in his email to Presidents Forum members as the person to contact for follow-up regarding the meeting with the Department of Education.

In March 2017, less than two months into the Trump administration, Hansen resigned his new job at the Department of Education after media reports revealed that from 2013 to 2016 he was a lobbyist at the for-profit college trade association CECU, where he pressed to weaken the Obama administration’s “gainful employment” rule, a measure aimed at cutting off federal aid to for-profit and career programs that left students buried in debt. Soon after Hansen joined the DeVos Department, it launched an effort to erase the Obama rule.

According to ProPublica, Hansen told that outlet he wasn’t working on the gainful employment regulations while at the Department. But emails obtained by the Century Foundation and published in The Atlantic in 2018 revealed that Hansen, once at the Department, was aggressively seeking action on those very regulations, as well as interacting with his former co-workers at CECU.

Taylor Hansen, whom, government records indicate, worked closely with current boss James Manning whole both were at the DeVos Department, is also, in case you didn’t guess, William Hansen’s son.

The for-profit college industry, no doubt aided by the highest-paid consultants, is creatively and aggressively seeking new ways to rebrand its products and lobbying efforts — buying and co-opting mainstream partners, renaming its companies and schools, converting to technically non-profit operations while still engaging in predatory abuses and reaping huge profits. Will policymakers, including the Biden administration, fall for it?

19. The trade publication Inside Higher Ed reported in a brief item last week, “Several higher education policy experts with differing views on the value of for-profit institutions came together to develop a set of policy recommendations for holding for-profit institutions accountable in a recent report from Opportunity America.” Inside Higher Ed summarized the report’s conclusions but didn’t name any of the policy experts.

A review of the actual report is illuminating.

The report’s recommendations seem to bend in the direction of policies sought by the for-profit college industry, which wants to stop the current push by the Biden administration to require stronger accountability. For example, the report endorses “greater accountability for all institutions of higher education regardless of their governance structure” — a seemingly reasonable, almost innocuous, sentiment, but reflective of the mantra urged by the for-profit college industry, which has been exposed by government and media probes as particularly abusive, more unshackled, and in need of stronger oversight than other sectors. The panel recommendations also suggest a weakening, rather than replication (or strengthening), of the Obama gainful employment rule that Betsy DeVos cancelled, in directions that would certainly appeal to for-profit college operators.

Paid advocates for the for-profit college industry, from its hired lobbyists to members of Congress blessed with its campaign cash, are likely to cite this report as a sensible middle ground produced by a broad range of experts. Indeed, predictably, Opportunity America is calling it “Finding the Middle Ground on For-Profit Colleges.” But although the panel did contain some respected higher education experts from corporate-backed centrist think tanks and academia, it lacked any student champions from the advocacy community. And it included people closely tied to, or very much inside, the for-profit college industry.

The report’s opening “Acknowledgements” section acknowledges who paid for the project: “Special gratitude goes to our funder, Donald Graham.” Donald Graham runs Graham Holdings, which operates Kaplan Higher Education, which owned several chains of for-profit colleges and got into repeated and serious problems with law enforcement for predatory practices. Graham also used his sterling Washington establishment ties and cred (Graham Holdings was previously called the Washington Post Company, and Graham’s mother Katharine was its iconic leader) to lobby against Obama-era measures to hold the industry accountable. Now Graham, who, in a troubling deal, sold Kaplan University to Purdue University, but kept a contract to keep running and potentially making big money off the predatory operation, seems poised to fight against new rules under Biden.

The Acknowledgments acknowledge further that Graham “helped launch the project” but assures that he “then disappeared, never asking about our deliberations, never interfering, never offering input of any kind, but leaving us to find our own consensual policy proposals.”

Except. Except that the collective “us” behind the report includes “Andrew Rosen, chairman and CEO, Kaplan,” i.e. the person paid by Donald Graham to run his for-profit college operations.

Also on the panel was Jorge Klor de Alva, former president of the biggest for-profit college operation, the University of Phoenix, another school with a terrible record of predatory practices and law enforcement problems; Klor de Alva now is president of the Nexus Research & Policy Center, which was created and is funded by the same University of Phoenix.

And there’s Trace Urdan who is, well, Trace Urdan, market analyst and long-time for-profit college industry cheerleader — the kind of cheerleader who mocks people who aren’t cheerleaders.

The report acknowledges that there was some disagreement, at least over the federal 90-10 rule, which is aimed at weeding out poor quality for-profit colleges: “our group was divided as to the rule’s effectiveness and elected to leave the question unaddressed.”  And there was some attrition in the process: “Some who began the journey with us in 2019 dropped out before the end.”

Who dropped out, and why? Did they just get too busy, or bored, or is there more to this story? And if Graham funded it, how, especially in the pandemic era, was the funding used? Did the panelists get honoraria for crafting and endorsing this faux middle ground?