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Kline ridicules oversight of for-profit colleges that have given him thousands

MahurinLobbying_Thumb_1177.jpg
MahurinLobbying_Thumb_1177.jpg

Republican Rep. John Kline looks like he’s becoming the for-profit education industry’s proverbial “man in Washington.” In February, he proposed an amendment to defund any attempt by the federal government to overhaul regulations governing the industry, without a clear sense of what those new regulations would look like. In April, his quarterly campaign finance report filings with the Federal Election Commission showed that he’s raised more money from for-profit higher education–related PACs in the first four months of 2011 than in the entire 2009-2010 election cycle.

Now, following the federal Department of Education’s release of the final regulations Thursday, Kline released a statement condemning the changes, which the Obama administration says are essential to making sure students at 2- and 4-year for-profit colleges receive an adequate education and are able to pay back their often expensive educations.

The statement, issued in cooperation with Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), bemoaned the “red tape” and “unfair” targeting of places like the University of Phoenix and the ITT Technical Institutes which chiefly provide career-oriented vocational training for their students.

“At a time when Americans are desperate for jobs and opportunities, it is deeply troubling the administration continues to push an initiative that will limit the ability of millions of individuals to gain the skills and training necessary to succeed in the workplace,” said Kline.

Kline’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Whether those institutions actually teach students marketable skills and effectively prepare them for jobs in fields like healthcare, however, isn’t even an open question at this point. Numerous media reports**** have highlighted the fact that many graduates aren’t able to pay their student loans (they comprise about 46% of student loan defaulters, despite being a little over 10% of the post-secondary student population), and their tuition typically is double that at non-profit institutions.

Concern over this sector’s abusive treatment of their mostly poor and lower-income students has risen so high that 10 state attorneys general, led by Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, have launched an investigation into the industry’s practices.

The for-profit career college industry has pushed back in public and in private, according to industry watchdogs, culminating in Kline’s February attempt to defund enforcement of regulations on the industry.

“The lobbying and marketing effort put forth by the for-profit industry speaks volumes about their reluctance to be held up to scrutiny,” said Jose Cruz of Education Trust, “even though the majority of the dollars generated by this industry come from taxpayers [via federal student loans].”

Some of those taxpayer dollars are making their way back to Kline’s campaign. In 2009 and 2010, Kline was the ranking member on the House of Representatives’ Education and the Workforce committee, which gave him a bully pulpit, but not much opportunity to influence legislation moving through the committee. According to FEC filings covering those two years, his campaign and his Political Action Committee received $21,200 from the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (then known as the Career College Association) and a number of PACs run by these for-profit institutions. The committee chair, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), raked in $34,300 from the same or similar sources over the same time period.

As Kline took over the Education and the Workforce Committee gavel in January, and as the regulatory battle heated up, the industry’s largess grew significantly. From January through March of this year (the earliest data available from the FEC), Kline and his PAC found themselves with $21,400 from the for-profit college sector, while Miller, now the ranking member, collected no donations from that industry.

Perhaps the dirtiest secret of Kline’s professed outrage over the new regulations, though, may be the sheer mildness of the regulations issued last Thursday.

According to Education Trust’s Cruz, there are countless ways in which the for-profit college industry can circumvent these measures.

“The way it’s structured now, it provides a series of loopholes and conditions,” he said. The administration is “bending backwards for these companies to give them many opportunities to dance around the new regulations.”

In the face of legislative and lobbying pushback, Cruz charged, the administration has become more concerned with limiting political fallout than with issuing tough regulations, possibly because the legislation giving them authority to regulate the industry in the first place is soon to come up for renewal.

A Department of Education spokesperson defended the regulations, repeating comments made by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a statement announcing the new regulations.

“We’re asking companies that get up to 90 percent of their profits from taxpayer dollars to be at least 35 percent effective,” Duncan said. “This is a perfectly reasonable bar and one that every for-profit program should be able to reach. We’re also giving poor performing for-profit programs every chance to improve. But if you get three strikes in four years, you’re out,”

For Cruz, though, the changes are not enough.

“Hundreds of thousands of students that will continue to be underserved,” he said.

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