April 6, 2021

Convicted Felon Martha Stewart to Keynote Convention Involving Predatory For-Profit Colleges

Convicted Felon Martha Stewart to Keynote Convention Involving Predatory For-Profit Colleges

CECU, the trade association of for-profit colleges, announced to its members today that lifestyle entrepreneur Martha Stewart will be the keynote speaker for its annual conference, to be held in person in Grapevine, Texas, in June.

Stewart, the omnipresent author and television host, recently hailed in Fortune as American’s first female self-made billionaire, was convicted by a jury in 2004 of federal felony charges of conspiracy, obstruction of an agency proceeding, and making false statements to federal investigators in a stock trading case, and served five months in prison.

That record, honestly, makes Stewart a decent fit to address the for-profit college industry, many members and executives of which have faced criminal and civil law enforcement investigations, prosecutions, settlements, verdicts, and convictions.

Although there are honest, effective schools in the career college industry, CECU (formerly called APSCU, and, before that, Career College Association) has harbored as members some of the very worst predatory colleges, schools with records of deceiving and pressuring veterans, single mothers, and other striving Americans into enrolling in high-priced, low-quality programs that have ruined their financial futures. 

Past CECU members have included the notorious giant for-profit chains Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech, both of which collapsed in the middle of the last decade under the weight of media exposes and law enforcement probes revealing blatant deceptive recruiting and other predatory practices. CECU’s member roster also included ATI, FastTrain, and Alta/Westwood, three smaller chains that closed after being exposed for flagrant fraud. FastTrain was known for using strippers as recruiters and for enrolling students without high school diplomas; its CEO went to prison in 2016 to serve an eight-year term.

Other predatory chains that were once CECU members and are still operating include Perdoceo, DeVry, Bridgepoint (now Arizona Global), and Kaplan (now Purdue Global).

The CECU members that remain include the Center for Excellence in Higher Education (CEHE), operators of CollegeAmerica, Independence University, and other schools, a company with a disgraceful record of predatory abuses against students and resulting law enforcement actions. CEHE received a devastating $3 million judgment last summer from a Colorado judge who heard the trial of a consumer protection case brought by the state’s attorney general.

The August 2020 opinion by the Colorado judge, Ross Buchanan, carefully documented how CEHE schools used a detailed playbook to manipulate vulnerable students into enrolling in high-priced, low-quality programs; how the school directed admissions representatives to “enroll every student,” regardless of whether the student would likely graduate; how the schools’ recruiters and advertisements greatly overstated starting salaries that graduates could earn; how the schools falsely inflated graduation rates; and more. Judge Buchanan’s decision not only found CEHE and its schools liable for the abuses, he also found personally liable CEHE’s ultra-wealthy founder, Carl Barney, and its CEO, Eric Juhlin. (CECU and its executives are appealing the judgment.) 

CEHE is also being sued for fraud by the U.S. Justice Department and investigated by the federal Consumer Financial Protection.

Other current CECU members that have been the subject of law enforcement actions for abuses against students include Education Affiliates, Daymar College, Lincoln Educational Services, and Keiser University.

CECU is funded by its members and sponsors, most of whom feed off federal student grants and loans that the government provides to accredited colleges. So taxpayers, and low-income student loan borrowers, in the end pay for the CECU convention and for the kind of keynote speakers who typically charge high fees to appear. In that respect, Stewart is in prestigious company, as past CECU conference keynotes have included George W. Bush, Jeb Bush, Bill Clinton, Colin Powell, Newt Gingrich, and Bob Kerrey. 

In 2013, CECU/APSCU announced that former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen would be its convention keynote speaker, and the group boasted that Mullen’s appearance “will be a truly extraordinary moment for private sector education, bringing increased visibility and respect to the sector.” For reasons unknown (and after Republic Report had questioned Mullen’s decision to appear), Mullen ended up not speaking.

I somehow doubt that Martha Stewart will follow Mullen’s example and cancel her appearance at the CECU convention. She can probably persuade herself that predatory colleges, operated by wealthy executives and investors, are a good thing. 

UPDATE 04-06-21 2:42 pm: CECU spokesperson Rachel Tripp told me CECU had “no concerns” about Stewart’s criminal record being juxtaposed against the for-profit college industry’s law enforcement issues. “We are thrilled to have Martha Stewart keynoting our annual convention,” she emailed.