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Congresswoman Maxine Waters

Representing the 43rd District of California

Higher Ed Watch: Civil Rights Groups and Minority Lawmakers Send Message to Career College Lobbyists: Stop Playing the Race Card

February 25, 2011
In The News

By Stephen Burd

Last week, career college lobbyists succeeded in getting the House of Representatives to pass an amendment to the fiscal year 2011 continuing resolution that would block the Department of Education from issuing a regulation that aims to prevent for-profit colleges from overloading financially needy students with unmanageable levels of debt. But they did not achieve this victory without paying a price, and we're not talking about the millions of dollars that for-profit college companies have spent on campaign contributions and lobbying fees. By forcing a vote on this contentious issue before the Education Department even releases a final "Gainful Employment" rule, they managed to galvanize the nation's leading civil rights groups and a majority of minority lawmakers -- many of whom had until now remained on the sidelines in this debate -- to side with the Obama administration in its effort to rein in an industry that has done so much harm to the constituents they represent.

"Some advocates, noting that minority students make up a large segment of for-profit college students, claim that the new rule will narrow educational opportunities for low-income people and people of color. This claim misses the mark," Benjamin Todd Jealous, the president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Marian Wright Edelman, the president of the Children's Defense Fund, wrote in a column that appeared in USA Today a little more than a week before the vote took place. "It's like arguing that because mortgage lenders targeted minorities with their most exploitative products and practices, we should not have stopped them."

This backlash could prove damaging to the proprietary school sector, considering that its lobbyists have so cynically made playing the race card a key part of their lobbying strategy. They have done this, as Edelman and Jealous note, by arguing that the administration's proposed "Gainful Employment" rule would close the doors of college to the low-income and minority students who these institutions predominantly serve.

Over the past year, for-profit higher education industry officials have aggressively courted members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to help spread this message. As we have previously reported, they have hired at least three former black caucus members to lobby on their behalf, including former Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman William Gray, who is working for the Education Management Corporation. Meanwhile Paul Brathwaite, who served as the CBC's executive director from 2001 to 2007, is part of a team of lobbyists at the Podesta Group that the group formerly known as the Career College Association (CCA) hired to appeal to Democratic lawmakers, including members of the black and Hispanic caucuses.

These lobbyists have certainly had some success, as they have gotten as many as a dozen CBC members to weigh in, at one point or another, with the Education Department to express their concerns about the proposed rule. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL), who won his seat in Congress in 1992 after having been impeached as a federal judge over bribery charges, has taken the lead in championing the industry. He was one of the chief sponsors of the amendment blocking the Department from issuing the rule.

The lobbyists have also been successful in getting some organizations representing minority groups to come to the industry's defense. As Inside Higher Ed noted in July, most of these groups -- such as MANA: A National Latina Organization, the National Black Chamber of Congress, the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, and the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women -- had rarely, if ever, taken a position on national higher education policy debates before and had been heavily courted by the Podesta Group as well as the CCA. Their biggest coup, however, came when the Rev. Jesse Jackson agreed to speak out for them, despite the fact that his organization, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, had already voiced its support for the proposed Gainful Employment Rule. They had less success with Rev. Al Sharpton, as Inside Higher Ed reported in this must-read article.

But with Jackson and some CBC members backing them up, career college lobbyists became cocky about portraying the Obama administration as being hostile to the interests of minority students. Here, for example, is what Lanny Davis, the former Clinton Administration lawyer who until recently headed up the pro-industry group the Coalition for Educational Success, wrote in a Huffington Post column in October:

No wonder so many members of the Democratic Congressional Black Caucus have written letters of concern to DOE Secretary Arne Duncan, as well as many other leaders of minority communities who have expressed the same concerns, such as Rev. Jesse Jackson … regarding these regulations as currently drafted and support serious changes before final issuance.

Isn't it troubling (at least to fellow liberal Democrats, such as myself) that a progressive Democratic administration seems indifferent or determined to go full steam ahead and ignore a disparate racial and economic effect of these regulations on a core Democratic Party base – minorities and lower income people who comprise most of the for-profit college students adversely affected by these proposed regulations? And just before an election day when the president and Democratic Party leaders are seeking a large turnout from that base?

Support for the industry from "leaders of minority communities" and the CBC, however, was never as broad and deep as Davis and other career college lobbyists claimed.

From the start of the debate on gainful employment, groups like the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza joined with consumer advocacy groups in supporting the administration's efforts. Over time, other groups, such as the Council for Opportunity in Education, which lobbies on behalf of the federal TRIO programs, the Education Trust, a research and advocacy group, and the League of United Latin American Citizens joined the fray. And in the days before the vote, the illusion that the lobbyists had tried to create was shattered, as one group after another spoke out for the rule and/or against the amendment -- including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national organizations; the Hip Hop Caucus; the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities; the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education; the Southern Poverty Law Center; the United Negro College Fund; and the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute, among others. And they all delivered a similar message: stopping unscrupulous for-profit schools from taking advantage of the most vulnerable students is not limiting student access.

This common-sense message appears to have resonated with most minority lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Ultimately, 30 of the 40 members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted against the amendment, including at least two, Reps. Andre Carson (D-IN) and Charlie Rangel (D-NY) , who had previously signed letters indicating that they were going to vote for it.

The vote made clear that Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), who has long been an adversary of the sector, is no longer the lone voice within the caucus raising serious concerns about the way the industry has been operating. In fact, it appears that she now has plenty of company.

So while for-profit college leaders and lobbyists are probably still celebrating their victory, they may soon wonder whether it was really worth it.