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Higher Ed Watch Investigation into Astro-Turf Lobbying by For-Profit Colleges Cited in USA Today

Published:  May 25, 2011

Yesterday, USA Today cited an investigation Higher Ed Watch conducted last year that helped expose a massive astro-turf lobbying campaign that the for-profit higher education industry waged to try and stop the Obama administration from finalizing its proposed “Gainful Employment” rule.

Last summer, career college leaders and lobbyists flooded the U.S. Department of Education with tens of thousands of letters from students, faculty members, and alumni opposing the proposed regulation, which aims to penalize for-profit college programs that saddle students with unmanageable levels of debt. By doing so, they succeeded in getting the Department to delay issuing a final rule for months. [The Department is expected to finalize the regulation any day now and, possibly, as early as the end of this week.]

Our reporting, however, showed the extraordinary lengths that some in the industry went to manufacture this dissent. In August, we revealed that Education Management Corporation (EDMC), the country’s second largest for-profit higher education company, had hired DCI Group, a controversial Republican advocacy and public relations firm, to contact the company’s employees individually to help them craft “personalized” letters to the U.S. Department of Education opposing the proposed rule. This post got picked up by numerous publications, including Inside Higher Ed, Mother Jones, and the Washington Monthly.

And then in October, we ran a second post, entitled “Mad Libs’ Career College Edition,” in which we showed that some of the comments that the group formerly known as the Career College Association (CCA) had submitted to the Department on behalf of for-profit college students and employees did not even attempt to hide the fact that they were form letters -- as nobody had bothered to fill in the blanks. For example, a letter from a student named Farnaz stated:

I am a career college student at [INSTITUTION] studying [PROGRAM]. [INSTITUTION] is providing me with the education and training necessary to obtain the job I`ve always wanted as a [CAREER]. The Department of Education`s proposed gainful employment rule could take this dream away from me and thousands of other students by denying us the federal financial aid to which we are entitled [EXPLAIN ANY OTHER CONCERNS YOU HAVE ABOUT LOSING ACCESS TO THE PROGRAM OF YOUR CHOICE AT YOUR INSTITUTION.]

The USA Today article, “Barrage of Comments Bog Down Federal Rules,” focuses on how the for-profit colleges’ tactics are being used by a variety of industries that are trying to slow down regulatory efforts that threaten their interests. Building off our reporting on EDMC's campaign, the newspaper leads off by highlighting the experiences of Kathy Grismore, a former sociology instructor at the company’s Brown Mackie College. Grismore told the newspaper that administrators at her school had pressured her to alert the Education Department of her opposition to the proposed rule, and to get her students do so as well. "I can't say I felt there would be repercussions" for not following through, she stated. "I can say I wouldn't put anything past them." The article notes that EDMC hired DCI Group to help run the campaign.

The article also specifically cites our Mad Libs post and highlights the letter from Farnaz to show that there are legitimate questions about whether many the comments that the for-profit higher education industry submitted were "a sham."

At Higher Ed Watch, we are happy to see USA Today bring attention to the for-profit college industry’s shameless astro-turf lobbying campaign and are grateful, as always, for the recognition of our work.

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