As the 2012 GOP nomination contest neared the critical Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney was asked by the Ames Tribune's editorial board what he planned to do about higher education. Romney's response was crystal-clear: He liked for-profit colleges, especially a Florida school called Full Sail University. It turned out that Full Sail's owners were among Romney's top donors.
And that, it seemed, was the point: Although other GOP candidates that year, including Newt Gingrich, had personal and financial ties to the wealthy for-profit college industry, Romney, who denounced Obama administration efforts to curb industry abuses, won that year's for-profit college cash primary en route to the overall financial competition and, eventually, the nomination prize. Then the industry heavily funded Romney's general election campaign against President Obama.
The lesson has not been lost on the 2016 GOP candidates. For-profit colleges, which have been taking $30 billion or more a year in taxpayer money, not only have cash but a huge stake in federal policy. Many get 85 percent of more of their revenue from the federal government, and the industry is determined to halt new regulations and enforcement efforts pursued under the Obama administration to try to channel federal money away from poorly performing, predatory schools that leave many students much worse off than when they started. With Hillary Clinton now attacking such predatory colleges on the campaign trail, industry executives have big incentive to again provide big campaign dollars in hopes of having a friend in the White House come 2017 so that they can go back to their old ways: deceiving and abusing students, and cashing their federal financial aid checks.
So even though the for-profit college industry is now publicly discredited and on the ropes, facing collapsing enrollments, plummeting share prices, and growing federal and state law enforcement investigations, some GOP White House candidates are now brazenly competing for cash in the 2016 for-profit college primary:
- Money and poll frontrunner Jeb Bush has long made "education reform" his top issue, demanding that K-12 schools be held accountable for educating students. But when it comes to higher education, Bush has instead embraced the for-profit education industry's demand that it not be held accountable for student outcomes. At last year's meeting of APSCU, the trade association of for-profit colleges, Bush denounced President Obama's "gainful employment" rule, which is aimed at penalizing those career education programs that take taxpayer dollars but consistently leave their students with overwhelming debt. Bush told the group assembled in Las Vegas on June 18, 2014, that the new rules were "a sledgehammer to the entire field of higher education."
UPDATE 07-27-15: The newest entrant in the for-profit college primary is Carly Fiorina, who said, in an interview with Breitbart, "The Obama administration ... has been trying to drive for-profit universities out of business. Why? For-profit universities do a very good job of educating a lot of people at a lower cost." Pretty much exactly what Mitt Romney said four years ago.
This post also appears on Republic Report.
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