News & Politics

For-Profit Colleges Scamming Vets? Even Marco Rubio Knows That's Bad News

Despite "hammering" from lobbyists, the junior Senator from Florida joins the Democratic push to prevent Veterans from suffering at the hands of the for-profit college industry.

Photo Credit: Anthony Correia /

If he’s auditioning to be Mitt Romney’s running mate, then perhaps Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) just swung at a pitch and missed. But if he meant to stand up for honest government and for America’s veterans, which apparently he did, then Rubio just hit a home run.

And, as a result, a high-priced team of Washington lobbyists suffered a setback.

Increasingly, responsible Senators realize we need common sense rules to ensure that federal aid to college students is spent wisely — so the money goes to programs that help students learn, earn valuable degrees, and get jobs, rather than programs that leave them with worthless credits and overwhelming debt. But the for-profit college industry, currently under investigation by a bipartisan group of 23 state attorneys general for fraudulent practices and shoddy programs, is accustomed to earning billions without any accountability.  So they fight every reform tooth and nail, and they often get their way, because they back up their expensive lobbyists with piles of campaign cash.

On the trail, both Romney and his chief rival Rick Santorum have pledged their allegiance to the for-profit colleges, and their opposition to President Obama’s efforts to hold these subprime schools accountable. Romney, who is tied to the industry through campaign donors and his own investments, seems ready to declare himself the For-Profit Education President.

Similarly, in the House of Representatives, the for-profits appear to have the loyalty of every single Republican.  The GOP is supposed to be about smaller government, fiscal responsibility, avoiding waste of taxpayer dollars. Many for-profit schools get 90 percent or more of their money from federal aid — this is a government program, not a pure free market venture — and the benefits ought to be provided honestly and in the interests of our citizens. But all such concerns have been swept aside by a GOP leadership that apparently sees for-profit college cash as a pillar of its empire.  A good number of House Democrats go along for the ride.

In the Senate, however, the tide may be turning. With strong leadership from Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), more Democrats are standing up for students and taxpayers and standing against the arrogance and greed of the for-profit education industry. So Senators have been introducing a series of bills with tougher consumer protections, especially proposals to empower veterans and active duty military, who often have been the victims of deceptive recruiting by predatory schools.

Most recently, on Tuesday, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced a billto provide every veteran who receives education aid from the Department of Veterans Affairs with counseling to help make the right choices. The bill also would set up a system to track veterans’ complaints of waste, fraud, and abuse by schools. It was endorsed right away by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Military Officers Association of America.

The bill seems pretty noncontroversial — who could object to our veterans getting the facts about their educational choices and speaking up to prevent waste?

And, indeed, the bill drew two Republican co-sponsors.  One was Senator Scott Brown (R-MA), logical because he’s in a tough race with consumer champion Elizabeth Warren. The other was Senator Rubio.

Maybe Rubio expected a smoother course. Some schools, including the biggest, University of Phoenix, decided not to oppose the bill. But then the second biggest, Education Management Corporation (EDMC), pushed back hard. EDMC, 40 percent owned by Goldman Sachs, runs The Art Institutes, Argosy University, Brown Mackie College, and South University. Its board chair  is John McKernan, husband of Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME).

What was EDMC’s main objection? According to Hill sources, it was simply that Senator Harkin, their nemesis, was another co-sponsor. EDMC lobbyists applied heavy pressure to GOP offices, and, in particular, “hammered” Rubio’s office not to join forces with the villainous Harkin. The largest for-profit college trade group, APSCU, at first seemed disinclined to impede the bill, but with its member EDMC firmly opposed, APSCU now has told Senators it wants changes.

So why did Rubio hold firm against this pressure and join Democrats in sponsoring the legislation? A Hill source says it was … principle. As a conservative, he wanted to back a provision that guarded against waste of federal money. And he wanted to support our veterans. Principle! I hope more members of Congress — of all political stripes — follow Senator Rubio’s example.

David Halperin, a Senior Fellow at United Republic, advises organizations on strategy, policy, politics, communications, and legal matters. He was previously the founding director of Campus Progress, and senior vice president at the Center for American Progress.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018