Society and Culture, Education

For-profit college lobbying: Missing the forest for the trees

On Friday, the Huffington Post, in conjunction with an advocacy group named United Republic, posted a piece about for-profit college lobbying during the 2010-2011 fight over new federal regulations. For those scoring at home, this is the latest article in a series on for-profit colleges by HuffPo’s intrepid reporter Chris Kirkham. Kirkham uses publicly disclosed data on lobbying expenses and campaign contributions to paint a damning picture of the for-profit influence. In Kirkham’s view, for-profit lobbying efforts were “unprecedented,” costing upwards of $13 million over the past two years. His sources tell us that “big money won” while “students lost” in the fight over gainful employment.

Kirkham’s numbers are almost certainly right. The problem is, his work continues to provide readers with less than half of the story. Without the necessary context, I suppose we’re expected to take Kirkham’s word that these lobbying expenses are indeed “unprecedented” in higher education?

However, as I argued last month in The Atlantic, once you put the lobbying expenses in context, it becomes clear that for-profits are far from the only players in the higher education lobbying game. Nor are they the biggest. Some of the country’s most beloved public state systems (SUNY, University of Texas) and private nonprofits (Boston University, Johns Hopkins) spend millions on Washington influence every year. As former Clinton education aide Andy Rotherham recently warned, “elementary and secondary lobbyists are pussycats when compared to their higher-education counterparts, who can really do some political damage.” And we have not yet seen the full strength of the traditional sector: Lobbying expenses should reach new heights as traditional higher education interests push back on the president’s latest proposal to link eligibility for federal aid to affordability and return on investment.

Interestingly, United Republic aims to combat moneyed influence in politics. One can only hope that they will be equally attentive to the millions that public and nonprofit organizations have spent and will continue to spend on higher education lobbying in the near future. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

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