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For-Profits Battle on Many Fronts

September 29, 2010

WASHINGTON – As the U.S. Department of Education and a Senate committee continue drilling into for-profit higher education, the sector is fighting back with advertising and political messaging aimed at attracting support from policymakers and the general public.

Since the start of September, for-profit colleges and groups representing them have spent millions of dollars on print, web, television and radio ads. They’ve launched glossy promotional websites that tell students’ stories and direct visitors to write to their representatives in Congress in support of the sector. Former presidential advisers from Democratic and Republican administrations are coming out of the woodwork to affirm the importance of for-profit colleges.

“We’re 12 percent of higher education but very few public policy makers understand us and even fewer have attended our schools,” said Harris N. Miller, president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, which until last week was the Career College Association. “We need to aggressively deliver the message, to move from abstract conversation to the real issues and examples, to say there is value being offered to students.”

The public relations push is butting against tough political stances. The Education Department has delayed the release of some of its final regulations on “gainful employment” to early next year, but Secretary Arne Duncan vowed still to take aim at “some bad actors [that] are saddling students with debt they cannot afford in exchange for degrees and certificates they cannot use.”

The efforts come in advance of more potentially bad news coming from Capitol Hill, as Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, will on Thursday hold his third hearing since June to examine the flow of taxpayer dollars to for-profit colleges. It will include the presentation of data from 30 institutions on student outcomes and company revenues, as well as testimony from Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success; Arnold L. Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education; and a former Kaplan Higher Education student from Iowa.

Kathleen Bittel, a career services adviser at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh’s online division, is set to testify to discuss what she called "deceptive" placement practices. HELP committee staff identified Bittel after she wrote to Harkin and the five other senators (including four Democrats and one independent) who were cosignatories of a letter to the Education Department voicing support for the gainful employment regulations. In her letter, first excerpted in a Tuesday blog post by Stephen Burd, editor of the New America Foundation’s Higher Ed Watch, Bittel detailed ways in which parent company Education Management Corporation encouraged rank-and-file workers to manipulate job placement data.

“[M]y conscience will not allow me to remain quiet about what I know,” she wrote. “I was repeatedly pressured to call graduates working in unrelated fields and review the courses they learned and somehow convince them that obscure details of their current jobs were using the ‘skills’ they were taught, and that they were using those skills at least 25 percent of their time there.” Education Management promised a response to Bittel’s claims but did not provide one before deadline Tuesday night.

Coupled with the sector’s ever-larger efforts to lobby the Obama administration and Congress, advertising campaigns and other public platforms are important tools for the sector and its students to use to ensure their voices are heard, Miller said. He expects that more than 1,000 people will gather on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol this morning for a rally centered on the slogan “my education, my job, my choice,” which plays a prominent role in APSCU’s advertisements.

In the last week or so, the association has advertised in The Washington Post, Politico and Congress Daily, and on NPR and cable news, all with the aim of building some buzz in the nation’s capital. “Our buys have been primarily focused on D.C.,” Miller said. “We want public officials and their staff to hear what we have to say.”

Since mid-September, Corinthian Colleges has spent somewhere between $5 and $10 million (“the high single digits,” according to the company) on a print advertising campaign that has run frequently in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, as well as in the major newspapers serving Atlanta, San Francisco, Dallas and several other large metropolitan areas.

The “My Career Counts” campaign includes half-page ads citing the potential effects of the gainful employment regulations, as calculated for Corinthian by the Parthenon Group: 1,000,000 students who could lose access to postsecondary education and 100,000 jobs that could disappear. “I don’t count? Some in Washington think I don’t,” declares the text running across full-page ads that weave biographical information about individual graduates into text that describes the gainful employment regulations as “severely limit[ing] student choice and access to education by shutting down thousands of career training programs.”

Kaplan, DeVry and the University of Phoenix have also made larger-than-usual ad buys. (Phoenix is also a major sponsor of NBC’s Education Nation summit and coverage this week.)

Other groups are trying to capture policymakers’ attention by hiring ex-policymakers to represent them.

Margaret Spellings, who was George W. Bush's education secretary from 2005 through 2009, wrote in defense of for-profit colleges on the op-ed page of the Washington Post (whose parent company also owns Kaplan and 8 percent of Corinthian) on Sunday. "Rather than targeting a crucial sector, the administration should take steps to promote innovation so that more students may have affordable access to higher education," she wrote. "It should support accountability and transparency so that students have a better idea about the value of the education they are buying and should oppose efforts to remove educational opportunities to which underserved populations are finally being given access." She is identified as an adviser to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which came out in opposition to the gainful employment regulations, and to Education Management.

Robert J. Shapiro, who was under secretary of commerce for economic affairs during Bill Clinton’s second term and an adviser to other prominent Democrats, on Tuesday released a report examining taxpayer contributions to higher education across sectors. In a footnote, Shapiro disclosed that the report had been sponsored by Kaplan, though a press release noted that DeVry and Education Management had also funded his work.

Shapiro said his work was “absolutely independent” of the companies that sponsored it. “As Congress and the administration weigh these appeals for money … the decision should be weighed in actual fact,” which his report offers, he said. “My reputation is not worth skewing everything.”

In June, Lanny J. Davis, White House special counsel during the Clinton administration, blasted Harkin’s decision to call Steven Eisman -- an investor who has bet that for-profit stocks are in trouble – to testify before the HELP committee while not disclosing all of the education stocks he was short-selling at the time. Davis called for “full disclosure and transparency by short-seller critics” of for-profit higher education, but didn’t note his personal and professional ties to former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, who was chief executive officer of the now-defunct Decker College.

Davis reemerged earlier this month to criticize the Obama administration from the left. The gainful employment regulations, he wrote in a New York Times letter to the editor, “were an example of regulatory excess producing the law of unintended consequences” and “surprising coming from a progressive Democratic administration.” He is identified as special adviser to the Coalition for Educational Success, a recently formed group of privately owned for-profits including Virginia College, Concorde Career Colleges and ATI Career Training Center. Public relations representatives have offered him up as the group’s spokesman, willing to be interviewed on gainful employment or in response to Thursday’s hearing.

Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and his Rainbow PUSH Coalition have come out in opposition to the gainful employment regulations, adding to a chorus of many other minority groups that have voiced opposition, including the National Black Chamber of Commerce, which has placed ads against the rule in Washington publications.

Career Education Corporation on Monday announced that it had hired Walter Pryor, most recently principal and general counsel of the Podesta Group, as its vice president of government affairs. Podesta has been involved in much of the lobbying done by APSCU and for-profit companies.

Rich Williams, higher education advocate at U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said these efforts amount to a “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” strategy. “They’re big corporations spending as much as they can to buy a giant megaphone to spread their message across the country. For them this is about profits and not people.”

But Miller insists that APSCU and others are working in students’ interests. “We’re speaking up for students who don’t have a lot of their own independent resources to get politicians’ attention,” he said. “And the students we have coming to the rally, they’re galvanized, they’re energized, not just about the gainful employment rule but more generally. They’re sick and tired of people taking cheap shots at their institutions and their educations.”

 

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