Predatory Colleges, Converted To Non-Profit, Are Failing
About a dozen years ago, owners of some of the biggest, worst-acting for-profit colleges began concocting, with their eager, high-paid lawyers, schemes to convert their schools into non-profits. The apparent aims were to evade the heightened government regulations applied uniquely to for-profit schools in order to guard against waste, fraud, and abuse — and to escape the growing stigma that the industry’s predatory behavior had placed on for-profits.
The clever schemes have come in various colors, yet most of them potentially allowed the sharp operators to keep making big money off the schools they no longer formally owned but, one way or another, still controlled. These dubious deals, mostly blessed by servile government departments and accrediting agencies, have made a mockery of non-profit rules, and, much worse, have helped sustain another decade of predatory college abuses against students and taxpayers, resulting in the waste of billions of dollars and the ruining of the financial futures of tens of thousands of people — veterans, single moms, and others — who sought better lives through higher education.
Yet, just as the private equity owners of the University of Phoenix, historically one of the biggest for-profit schools, are now trying to execute yet another dubious version of this scheme — getting a pile of cash by unloading the school on Scott Green, the hubristic president of the University of Idaho, and potentially allowing the current, high-paid executive team to stay employed — it seems, increasingly, that many of these non-profit conversions are not just harmful to the public but also ultimately unsustainable for the operators.
Here’s what’s been happening lately:
— Last week, the Federal Trade Commission sued Grand Canyon University and its CEO, asserting that the school deceived doctoral students about the costs and course requirements of programs — and about the school’s claimed nonprofit status. The FTC also alleges that Grand Canyon engaged in deceptive and abusive telemarketing.
The FTC lawsuit follows an October announcement by the U.S. Department of Education that it is imposing a $37 million fine on Grand Canyon based on similar allegations.
Grand Canyon CEO Brian Mueller has responded to the FTC and education department investigations with a remarkable series of pronouncements suggesting that the moves against his self-proclaimed Christian university are rooted in religious or ideological bias. But, in reality, Grand Canyon’s troubles with regulators began not in the Biden administration, which has cracked down on for-profit college abuses, but under Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos, a Christian conservative who staffed her office with former for-profit college executives and did almost nothing else over four years to hold predatory colleges accountable.
Grand Canyon in 2018 had restructured itself into two entities: a non-profit college, GCU, and a for-profit company, Grand Canyon Education (GCE), that gets paid to provide a range of services to the school. Even though the IRS already had declared GCU a legitimate non-profit, the DeVos Department of Education in 2019 rejected the school’s bid for preferred non-profit status under federal education rules, concluding that “the primary purpose” of the Grand Canyon conversion to non-profit was “to drive shareholder value for GCE with GCU as its captive client — potentially in perpetuity.” The DeVos team couldn’t help but notice that Brian Mueller is the well-paid head not only of the non-profit school but also of the for-profit company has been getting about 95 percent of the non-profit college’s revenue.
Together, the Department and FTC actions call into question not only the integrity of Grand Canyon’s recruiting and academic operations, but also its effort to be accepted as non-profit. [UPDATE 01-06-24: Grand Canyon announced Friday that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has initiated a risk-based audit of the school. In a statement, Mueller called the VA investigation, together with the other government actions, “nothing short of harassment.”]
— Last month, the Department of Education took another step to hold accountable the non-profit Center for Excellence in Higher Education, whose schools, the largest of which was Independence University, shut down in 2021. The Department demanded $23 million from CEHE to pay for “closed-school discharges” — reimbursement for cancellation of federal student loan debts that former students had owed the government. The Department in July already had cancelled $130 million in federal loan debt from former CEHE students, citing school misconduct; the Department could potentially seek to recoup all those funds from CEHE.
The ultra-wealthy Ayn Rand disciple Carl Barney owned the schools until 2012, when he sold them at a hefty valuation to CEHE, a small non-profit that he controlled. Seemingly sleepy career officials at the Department of Education approved the transaction in the Obama years, but public scrutiny raised doubts about the appropriateness of the deal.
Like Grand Canyon, CEHE’s abuses were by no means limited to the terms of the non-profit conversion. In 2020, a Colorado court found the company had engaged in systematic deceptive practices. Barney’s schools, the court concluded after an extensive trial, used a detailed playbook to manipulate vulnerable students into enrolling in high-priced, low-quality programs; directed admissions representatives to “enroll every student,” regardless of whether the student would likely graduate; greatly overstated starting salaries that graduates could earn; and falsely inflated graduation rates. CEHE has been pursuing an appeal, but in 2021, the accrediting agency for the schools withdrew approval, citing performance failures, and the Department of Education soon after tightened the screws on federal aid, precipitating the schools’ closure.
CEHE is a mess. It no longer runs any schools or gets any federal aid; instead its functions seem to be limited to trying to get former students to pay back the sketchy, high-interest private loans the school peddled, and engaging in legal disputes with the federal government; these include a pending fraud lawsuit filed by a CEHE whistleblower and joined by the Justice Department, an investigation of CEHE’s private loans by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and a lawsuit for $500 million brought by CEHE against the government alleging the schools were “a victim” of a campaign by the Department of Education “in coordination with ideological confederates… to cripple and close as many private career colleges as possible.” The Department also has suspended CEHE CEO Eric Juhlin from federal contracting.
— Another of the worst predatory for-profit schools is Ashford University, whose corporate owner Zovio pursued several different schemes for a non-profit conversion before finally selling the college to the University of Arizona, whose president, Robert Robbins, had been pressured by state regents to expand its online offerings.
Zovio’s scheme was to hide behind the prestige and political power of a big state university and yet keep getting for itself hundreds of millions off the school, now called University of Arizona Global Campus, through a long-term contract to provide recruiting, academic, and other services.
But that plan was thwarted after a California judge, in 2022, found Zovio liable for blatant deceptions of Ashford students and imposed $22 million in penalties. By law, the California judgment should compel the Department of Education to terminate federal aid to the school. Although Zovio pursued an appeal, it was discredited, bowed out of its contract to serve UAGC, transferred its infrastructure to the University of Arizona, and shut down.
But, with Zovio out of the picture, what was obvious to some even before the deal closed seems to have played out: Most of what Arizona had purchased, most of what made money, was not some supercharged high tech education platform but instead a predatory playbook and a staff trained to execute it. UAGC may not be able to pay its bills even if it keeps up with Ashford’s old predatory practices, but it almost certainly can’t do so if it tries to go straight. In November, President Robbins admitted that the University of Arizona’s overall financial situation is fragile, with cash reserves below minimum levels. Robbins said the school had “overinvested,” and school document revealed that one such exertion was the deal to buy Ashford, which “added $265.5 million in operating costs…”
Arizona’s financial woes from the Ashford deal may grow. Former Ashford students say they were ripped off and, as a result, have applied to have their federal student loans cancelled under a provision of law called borrower defense to repayment. In August, the U.S. Department of Education said it would cancel $72 million worth of loans because of Ashford’s deceptions. The Department also said it would use its legal powers to recoup those funds from Ashford’s owner, meaning the University of Arizona. UA says in response it had “absolutely no involvement in, and is not directly or indirectly responsible for, the actions of Ashford and its parent company” and will be “assessing its options.” But, reading the school’s agreement with Zovio, Arizona may be out of luck on that score.
— In contrast to Zovio’s fate, Graham Holdings has not been forced out of the 2017 deal in which it sold predatory for-profit Kaplan University to an Indiana state institution, Purdue University. Graham continues to hold a contract to provide a wide range of services to the school, now called Purdue University Global — a deal that Purdue is locked into for a 30-year term.
The Graham/Kaplan schools repeatedly faced law enforcement problems for predatory abuses against students before the sale. But the schools did better exercising political influence: The company’s head, Donald Graham, is a hyper-connected Washington insider; the business, long run by his family, was previously called The Washington Post Company, before it sold the newspaper to Jeff Bezos. Graham exploited his power and connections in DC to become the most effective lobbyist pressuring the Obama administration and Congress not to push too hard on for-profit college accountability; his protege Jeffrey Zients held key positions in the Obama White House, as did Anita Dunn, whom, once she left government, Graham hired to tell his schools’ supposedly compelling story to lawmakers. Dunn and Zients are now perhaps the two most powerful staffers in the Biden White House.
Having utilized his tight connections to key Democrats in the Obama years, Graham then took advantage of the lax regulatory environment under Republicans Trump and DeVos to do his troubling non-profit conversion deal with another top Republican politico, then-Purdue president Mitch Daniels, a former Indiana governor and White House official, who may have been dazzled by Graham’s big money ties, including his status as an ex-Facebook board member, and seen Kaplan as the road to a high-tech future.
But this effort to put state college lipstick on a for-profit pig may be failing as well. As Forbes noted last month, Graham Holdings‘ November filing with the SEC says Purdue Global owes the company $127.8 million — perhaps more than the school, structured as a non-profit associated with Purdue University, would be able to pay. Cutting costs at the school in order to pay Graham Holdings’ fees would likely mean lower-quality educational programs. Boosting enrollment for lower-quality programs would likely mean accelerating the deceptive recruiting practices, targeted at low-income Americans, that sullied Kaplan in the first place. Doing all of that at a time when the Biden administration, to its great credit, is working diligently to hold predatory schools accountable would be risky.
Don Graham’s best shot at continuing to make millions off Purdue Global may be for his long-time allies in the Biden administration to fail this year, and give way again to a president Trump, who once ran his own scam real estate school and likely would identify with Graham’s sense of victimhood about the persecutions of great for-profit educators.
— Finally, there is ultra-wealthy Arthur Keiser and his Keiser University, whose 2011 conversion from for-profit to non-profit was comparable to Carl Barney and CEHE: a sale of the for-profit school owned by Keiser, at a remarkably high valuation, to a non-profit controlled by Keiser. In addition to the inflated loan payments Keiser has since received from the non-profit, there are a range of businesses owned by Keiser that sell various services to the non-profit. Even worse, as we have documented, there is a highly questionable mingling of resources and personnel between the non-profit Keiser University and Southeastern College, another for-profit school owned by Arthur Keiser and his wife.
Keiser University seems to have come the closest to thriving after a shady non-profit conversion, but its troubles are now growing.
Arthur Keiser has gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, with his expensive lawyers trying, but so far failing, to block a landmark court settlement aimed at cancelling the student loan debt of hundreds of thousands of ex-students who have filed borrower defense claims, saying they were deceived by their schools. His complaint is that Keiser University was, for purposes of the deal, unfairly placed by the U.S. Department of Education on a list of presumptively bad-acting colleges when, he insists, “There’s no evidence of misconduct.”
But Keiser’s claim of innocence is just another deception.
Like all the other schools with troubling conversions, Keiser University also has repeatedly gotten in trouble with law enforcement, and settled claims, including with then-Florida attorney general Pam Bondi and with the U.S. Justice Department, over allegations of deceptive and unlawful recruiting practices. And recent staff members have told us about predatory behavior still happening at the school, including recruiting of low-income people seemingly unprepared for college programs and of people with insufficient English language skills to understand the course work.
Keiser University also has been in trouble recently with three different accreditors of specific school programs, who have placed the school on warning, probation, or show cause status due to concerns about matters including program effectiveness and certification exam passage rates.
The non-profit conversion also has, finally, gotten Keiser University in trouble; the school admitted under congressional questioning in 2021 that the IRS imposed a penalty on the school for improperly steering profits to Arthur Keiser by entering into leases above fair market value with Keiser-related for-profit companies. Senior Democrats in Congress, including senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have called on the U.S. Department of Education to investigate Keiser’s schools, which have received billions in taxpayer-funded student financial aid.
And, in November 2022, the Department determined that Keiser University’s accreditor, SACS, was out of compliance with numerous federal regulations and directed it to provide more information regarding its oversight of Keiser University and the school conversion to non-profit.
As part of the Department of Education’s regular oversight process for accreditors, I recently wrote to the Department, for a second time, urging it to hold SACS accountable unless it takes steps to address the conversion deal and predatory practices at Keiser’s schools. I hope that will happen, and that the Department itself will take steps to protect students by imposing conditions on Keiser’s future receipt of federal aid.
— Conversion from for-profit to non-profit has not prevented serious financial and / or legal problems at all of the schools we’ve discussed. In recent years, government regulators, accreditors, courts, and students have seen through the conversions, recognizing that predatory for-profit schools — with greedy owners, deceptive practices, poor value educational programs, and low return on student and taxpayer investment — remain predatory schools even when dressed up as non-profit colleges or big state universities. (The conversion of another huge predatory chain, EDMC, to non-profit also has been a disaster.)
Yet somehow the president of the University of Idaho, Scott Green, continues to insist he will be serving his school, and students, by acquiring, through an affiliated new non-profit, the giant for-profit University of Phoenix from huge private equity firm Apollo Global Management. Green remains determined to buy and run Phoenix despite Phoenix’s long and continuing record of abuses and law enforcement problems, despite the enormous potential liability Idaho might assume for debt cancellation for former Phoenix students, and despite opposition from many leaders in his own state, as well as advocates for students across the country. Green seems to think advancing education in Idaho requires a mega-deal with people in the world he came from — Wall Street high finance and big law firms. But, at best, he’s getting played. If Green — whose team keeps claiming, falsely, that Phoenix is under honest new management — and the Idaho state board of education can’t look objectively at the evidence that past conversions have been a moral disgrace, and a disaster for school operators, as well as students and taxpayers, then others in his state, the University of Idaho’s accreditor, and the U.S. Department of Education, should act to block the deal.