Notion that for-profit higher education institutions invented political influence is 'ludicrous'

Of the 20 higher education organizations with the highest lobbying totals in 2008, only two were for-profit colleges. | File photo

Many people have bought into the notion that for-profit higher education institutions are responsible for the higher education lobbying epidemic. Not so, says an expert on higher education reform.

For-profit colleges have come under intense scrutiny since allegations of widespread fraud and abuse surfaced years ago. In the face of multi-million dollar lawsuits and new regulations mandating for-profit institutions be more forthcoming to prospective students about future employment upon graduation, for-profits responded by hiring a slew of lobbyists to try to influence federal regulators.

But research shows that when it comes to lobbying Congress and the president, for-profit colleges don’t come close to efforts made by America’s public and nonprofit colleges and universities.

Andrew P. Kelly, director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute, published an article a few years ago comparing lobbying expenses of for-profit vs. nonprofit higher education institutions and found that from 2010–11, “many top nonprofit universities outspent the most vilified for-profits.”

“All in all, 13 traditional institutions spent more than $1 million in lobbying from 2010-2011, seven of whom were public systems funded with state tax dollars,” Kelly wrote.

Kelly told the Higher Education Tribune that the broader point of his article was not to make a “horse race comparison” between for-profits and nonprofit institutions, but to point out that higher education as a whole spends a lot of money on representation in Washington.

Kelly said institutions don’t only invest in direct lobbying, but also seek to influence legislation by being part of membership organizations like the American Council on Education and other groups that represent sectors like the National Association of Independent Colleges, which is a private college group, and ASCU, which is the state college group.

“The notion that for-profit colleges somehow invented political influence on the part of higher education is just ludicrous and there seemed to be a lot of that at the time,” Kelly said. “At that time people were writing about how outrageous these lobbying expenses were and so on without providing a counter factual credible comparison group.”

A credible comparisons group looks at what university systems are spending on trying to steer legislation in their favor.

“So that is what I did and the broader point here is there a good deal of higher ed influence in Washington on the part of established interested, mainly the institutions themselves and systems that they are a part of,” Kelly said. ”And sometimes the lobbying has nothing to do with actual policy or (regulations) — it might be research funding, trying to lobby for more research funding and so on. That is still political influence and they are still paying money on it.”

Kelly found that the biggest spender during 2010-11 was the State University of New York (SUNY) system, which spent $1.7 million in 2010 alone -- more than industrial leaders like Sunoco ($1.1 million), the Motion Picture Association of America ($1.6 million) and Continental Airlines ($1.6 million).

Research also showed that of the 20 higher education organizations with the highest lobbying totals in 2008, only two were for-profit colleges. Ten were public universities like SUNY (top of the list), which spent $6 million; the University of Texas at $3.5 million; and the University of Colorado.

“Everybody is looking for a (return) on an investment and typically the return on a lobbying investment is not always necessarily actually getting a preferred policy necessarily, but it is also keeping policies you don’t like off the agenda which is always much harder to detect,” Kelly said.

Recent efforts like the college rating system didn’t get very far in Congress, Kelly said, which suggests members of Congress are not keen on them. Neither are college leaders in the district. 

“It is like any sector that is affected by government policy. There are people (and) organizations that benefit from the status quo and they often work to protect it,” he said.

Kelly doesn’t fault organizations for doing so.

“They are a membership organization; they are supposed to represent their members,” he said. “But you also don’t have to ignore the fact that sometimes some of the policy changes that different lobbying groups and trade associations promote are not necessarily in the best interest of students and taxpayers.”