This story is shocking. Former officials in the Obama administration, once in charge of regulating predatory the for-profit higher education industry, now want in on the action themselves. Their financier is Obama’s best friend. The story was written by Michael Stratford and Kimberly Hefling. Please read this report as background for what follows.
Mercedes Schneider wrote about it here.
Obama’s close friend, Marty Nesbitt, and others are seeking US Department of Education (USDOE) approval to purchase the fiscally-troubled for-profit, University of Phoenix. Nesbitt and former Deputy Secretary of Education, Tony Miller, run a Chicago-based private equity firm, Vistria Group.
Vistria Group is part of a small collective that wants to purchase University of Phoenix, and the for-profit school’s parent organization, Apollo Education, is apparently all in.
USDOE approval would keep the student loan and Pell grant bucks coming to University of Phoenix– which happens to be the subject of three state attorneys general as well as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
The price tag for Vistria et al. appears to be $1.1 billion. As it stands, University of Phoenix receives $2 billion annually in public money.
If University of Phoenix goes under, then all of those student loans are forgiven– which means taxpayers foot the bill. If Vistria et al. acquire University of Phoenix, then the goings-on at the school become private. No more requiring that that public be made aware of the salaries of the school’s executives, or that the public be made aware of litigation against the school, or that the public know about pending investigations.
The story was originally posted at PoliticoPro, which is an expensive subscription; fortunately, it is now available for free at politico.com. Here is an excerpt from the original story:
As the Obama administration cracks down on for-profit colleges, three former officials working on behalf of an investment firm run by President Barack Obama’s best friend have staged a behind-the-scenes campaign to get the Education Department to green-light a purchase of the biggest for-profit of them all — the University of Phoenix.
The investors include a private equity firm founded and run by longtime Obama friend Marty Nesbitt and former Deputy Education Secretary Tony Miller. The firm, Chicago-based Vistria Group, has mounted a charm offensive on Capitol Hill to talk up the proposed sale of the troubled for-profit education giant, which receives more than $2 billion a year in taxpayer money but is under investigation by three state attorneys general and the FTC.
What stands out about the proposed deal is that several key players are either close to top administration officials, including the president himself, or are former administration insiders — especially Miller, who was part of the effort to more tightly regulate for-profit colleges at the very agency now charged with approving the ownership change. For-profit college officials have likened those rules to a war on the industry, and blame the administration for contributing to their declining enrollments and share prices.
The proposed sale carries high stakes for taxpayers, students and investors: The University of Phoenix’s financial stability may depend on the $1.1 billion acquisition. If the company were to fail, more than 160,000 students could be displaced and the government would be on the hook for hundreds of millions in student loans.
But the investors’ effort to seek Education Department approval of the school’s ownership change also raises questions about potential conflicts of interest.
“There is at least a taste of unseemliness involved in this,” said Mark Schneider, a former top education official under President George W. Bush. “They regulate it. They drive the price down. …They are buying it for pennies on the dollar.”
Vistria Group said it isn’t seeking special treatment. “We expect the Department to evaluate this proposed transaction on the merits,” the company said in a statement.
Vistria is part of a consortium of investors involved in the proposed acquisition, which has already won over shareholders of the school’s parent company, Apollo Education Group. But now the investors need the Education Department and the school’s accreditors to sign off on the ownership change to keep the federal money flowing — most of it in the form of student loans and Pell Grants.
With those decisions looming, Miller and at least one other former Obama insider have met with staff to Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), looking to reassure some of the loudest critics of for-profit colleges in the president’s own party, several Senate aides confirmed to POLITICO. Those lawmakers have pushed Obama’s Education Department to be even tougher on for-profit colleges.
Miller has also met with staff members working for other committee members, including Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Bob Casey (D-Pa.), as well as with Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate education committee. Nesbitt was not part of those Capitol Hill meetings, according to the aides….
But the specter of former insiders pushing the sale of a company in an industry that has long been in the administration’s crosshairs is not lost on critics. For seven years, the Obama administration has waged a crackdown on poor quality and predatory practices at many for-profit colleges, with the president himself excoriating some schools for “making out like a bandit” with federal money, but saddling students with big debts and leaving them unprepared for good jobs. He did not name the schools.
“It’s ironic that a former senior official at the Department of Education — an agency that has intentionally targeted and sought to dismantle the for-profit college industry — would now take the reins at the country’s largest for-profit college,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican who leads the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s higher education subcommittee….
The sale price, which shareholders approved last month after initially balking at a lower price, is considered a bargain by some industry observers. The day Obama was sworn into office on Jan. 20, 2009, the company’s stock closed at $86.54 per share. Today, it’s trading at around $9, although a recovering economy, unfavorable media coverage and the for-profit industry’s general slump have also contributed to that drop.
Some Senate Democrats said they are also uneasy with the investors’ plan to take the university private, which means it would no longer have to publicly disclose information such as executive compensation, lawsuits or when it’s a target of investigations. Those details are useful to prospective students, they say, at a time when the school faces inquiries from both state and federal authorities.
“Essentially, a company that receives more than $2 billion annually from federal taxpayers — nearly 80 percent of its revenue — is going dark, and it’s happening at a time when the University of Phoenix has come under increased scrutiny from state and federal regulators,” Durbin wrote in a March letter to the Education Department.
Republicans think that the Obama officials drove the price down by their regulatory actions, then moved in to buy it at a bargain price.
This transaction is unsavory. It should be stopped. The conflicts of interests and self-dealing are abhorrent.