May 14, 2024

Mike Pence to Speak at For-Profit College Convention. Why Exactly?

Mike Pence to Speak at For-Profit College Convention. Why Exactly?

Former Vice President Mike Pence will be the keynote speaker at this summer’s annual convention of CECU, the national trade association of for-profit colleges. CECU (full name, Career Education Colleges and Universities) announced Pence’s appearance in a March 22 press release.

The CECU convention will be held in June in Pence’s home state of Indiana, so that is convenient. But it seems like a weird choice.

Usually CECU is trying to suck up to the White House or the president’s challenger, or both. Because the for-profit college industry is so heavily dependent on federal tax dollars to get its revenue, and because revelations of industry abuses have spiraled, CECU has desperately wanted to be friendly with politicians in both parties.

In this case, they have picked as their keynote a man who, to put it mildly, appeals to neither the Biden nor the Trump team. Pence’s extreme far-right views, such as on abortion and LGBTQ issues, make him anathema to Biden Democrats, while his refusal to join in overthrowing the results of the 2020 election make him a reviled enemy for Trump world. 

CECU’s membership list over the years has included some of the worst-offending predatory for-profit colleges, schools caught using high-pressure sales tactics and deceptive advertising to trick veterans, single moms, and others into enrolling, then over-charging them and under-spending on instruction, all the while lying to government regulators. CECU stopped posting online its list of member schools around three years ago, after at least one website (this one) repeatedly called it out for harboring awful schools. But, even though some of the biggest and worst schools on the CECU roster have shut down under the weight of their own frauds, or else quit CECU years ago, we know bad schools have remained on the CECU membership rolls. Those have included Florida Career College, which closed this year after the Department of Education found egregious violations and cut off federal aid. We also know what college operators are on the CECU board of directors, including one long-serving and active board member, the imperious for-profit college baron Arthur Keiser

To fight back against efforts to hold it accountable for abuses, the for-profit college industry has hired big-name Democrats and Republicans, including former senior members of Congress, as outside lobbyists, and alternating Democrats and Republicans have served as the hired leader of CECU (which was previously called APSCU, and before that, CCA). The current CECU president, selected for the Biden era, is Democratic former congressman Jason Altmire.

Past keynotes hired to address the CECU convention have included a bipartisan roster of former high-ranking politicians, crossed with the occasional celebrity: George W. Bush, Jeb Bush, Colin Powell, Bill Clinton, Bob Kerrey, Martha Stewart. (One year, Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed to speak at the convention but then, without public explanation, cancelled (after we questioned whether he should go there).)

Despite all the bipartisan dressing, the for-profit college owners who dominate CECU and its industry lean heavily Republican. And Republican politicians have grown closer and closer to the industry and its campaign dollars over the past twenty years, while Democrats, with some exceptions, have increasingly seen a moral and fiscal responsibility to stand up against the predatory abuses that many for-profit colleges have inflicted on striving Americans. 

Many aggrieved leaders in the for-profit college industry have come to believe, in particular, that they have a savior in Donald Trump. Trump himself ran a predatory and deceptive unaccredited for-profit real estate school, Trump University, and he felt he was treated very unfairly when New York’s attorney general and former students sued him, a dispute that ended with Trump agreeing to pay $25 million in 2016. Trump’s administration, with Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, staffed the Department of Education with former for-profit college executives and did almost everything in its power to get rid of the Obama administration’s accountability rules and safeguards aimed at curbing predatory college abuses. The Biden administration has now reversed the Trump-DeVos policies, and taken ever stronger steps against bad-acting colleges.

Inviting the vice president from the party that coddles you, and who served the president whose return you so desperately want, sounds good. Except, of course, that this particular vice president diligently did his constitutional duty and refused on January 6, 2021, his president’s request to advance an illegal effort to overthrow American democracy. And Trump has made rather clear ever since that he’s really unhappy with Pence for declining to join that coup effort. Trump seemed more than okay with a violent mob not only invading the Capitol but also calling for Pence’s hanging. Pence, who vaguely ran against Trump for the GOP nomination this cycle, is also one of the few anti-coup Republicans who have not subsequently begged Trump for forgiveness or at least endorsed him.

And Trump has made clear that a second Trump term would be all about revenge, settling scores. Michael Pence himself would presumably be right up with there Michael Cohen on the score-settling list. 

So, while inviting the hard-right Pence, and presumably paying him a hefty speakers fee, won’t do anything to ingratiate CECU with a re-elected Biden administration, it also won’t score points with a new Trump administration.

But, honestly, in the tidal wave of vengeance that Trump seems bent on unleashing if he is restored to office, he probably won’t bother punishing an industry just because it spent sixty minutes falling asleep to a speech by Mike Pence. There will be much bigger targets, and Trump personally never seemed to care a whit about education policy anyway. He will likely will put in charge of education whoever his lieutenants suggest, and that will likely be someone who will go back to DeVos’s policy of doing whatever the for-profit colleges want. 

So CECU making Pence its keynote, while perhaps not a super-canny move politically, is maybe just a harmless way to deliver to the audience a big enough name, while saving on airfare in the convention budget.