As the school year winds down, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) continues to champion his cause against for-profit postsecondary education; however, one legal expert notes that “there is more than a double standard” at play in Durbin’s criticism.
Durbin sent yet another letter to high school principals, counselors and teachers last week urging them to join him in warning students about for-profit college abuses.
“Every day your students are bombarded by flashy advertisements from for-profit colleges offering a quick and easy enrollment process, federal financial assistance, flexible schedules and a promised path to high-paying jobs and a better life,” Durbin wrote. “But too often it doesn’t work out that way. I have heard too many stories of Illinois students, often low-income or minority students, who thought they were doing the right thing by enrolling in a for-profit college. Instead, they’re left with a worthless degree that employers don’t recognize as a legitimate credential, credits that don’t transfer and almost twice the average debt of their fellow students who attended traditional public schools.”
Durbin's letter goes on to list several for-profit higher education institutions facing ongoing investigations and lawsuits.
Durbin also listed a number of for-profit companies operating in Illinois that are part of the Department of Education’s (DOE) Heightened Cash Monitoring (HCM) list. Schools on the HCM list are more heavily scrutinized on financial or compliance issues by the DOE.
Before signing off, Durbin asked educators “to use your professional position” to ensure students are equipped with “the knowledge to protect themselves from colleges and universities with records of exploiting students.”
While Durbin has been highly critical of for-profit colleges over the years, he remained silent on the College of DuPage (COD) scandal that set off a firestorm two years ago.
In 2014, COD, Illinois’ second-largest college, was found to have hidden over $95 million in spending since 2009 after American Transparency launched an investigation of the college through Openthebooks.com.
The illegitimate spending included, $13,800 in membership fees to a private shooting club for COD President Robert Breuder; $243,305 on alcoholic beverages listed as “instructional supplies” on ledger and millions spent on companies affiliated with college leadership.
The investigation revealed that since 2009, COD spent $435,365 on items from Herricane Graphics, whose owner, Carla Burkhart, is listed as a member of the COD foundation’s board of directors; and Mark Wight, president of Wight & Company construction company, received $328,020 from COD and is the vice president of the college’s foundation.
Other questionable transactions included $464,873 to the law firm Robbins Schwartz Nicholas Lifton & Taylor. One of the attorneys at the firm, Kenneth Florey, is on the foundation’s board, as is Scott Marquardt, the president of Roger Marquardt & Co., COD’s lobbying firm, which received $229,500 in non-disclosed payments between 2009 and 2014.
In total, there were over 82,000 “hidden” transactions.
Interestingly, COD was not included in Durbin’s list of schools that students should steer clear of. Yet in 2014, the same year the COD scandal came to light, Durbin chose to focus on a scandal involving Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit institution found to have falsified job placement data used in marketing campaigns and skewed grades and attendance. Durbin went so far as to write a letter to former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, stating that Corinthian should not be allowed to enroll new students and community colleges should enroll the displaced students.
Durbin did not respond to a request for comment.
“I find it incredible that Sen. Durbin is attacking private colleges but staying mum about what is happening at public sector colleges, especially in his own state,” Ted Dabrowski, vice president of Policy at Illinois Policy Institute, told Illinois Business Daily. “Not only have we seen some of the corruption at the College of DuPage but we’ve seen massive amounts of administrative bloat, skyrocketing tuitions and a problem where colleges become unaffordable for most students in Illinois.”
Dabrowski said public colleges have become more unaffordable, with large administrative pay, multimillion dollar pensions and administrative bloat largely to blame.
“We’ve seen that in Illinois,” Dabrowski said. “More than 50 percent of all of the money the state appropriates to higher education is going straight to pensions. So you are having less and less go to the classroom or to lower the cost of education.”
Dabrowski added that there is a double standard at play because Durbin is turning students away from private schools but not mentioning the ills of public sector schools.
“He is not mentioning how many kids are going there and have to pay and borrow lots to attend school, and many of them are getting into the same kind of trouble you are seeing with private schools or for-profit schools,” Dabrowski said. “So I think it is wrong to attack just for-profits.”
He pointed out that Chicago State, one of the public universities with the biggest funding crisis in Illinois, “has nearly one administrator for every faculty member.”
“It has become so bloated in its administration that the school can no longer stay solvent," Dabrowski said. "Yet that is the kind of management and failure that a lot of the public sector schools have had. And it is why low-income kids who are looking for an education can no longer afford (it). That is where Sen. Durbin should spend some of his time.”
But Durbin has remained steadfast in his effort to sound the alarm on for-profit institutions.
Last year he wrote a letter to the Department of Education urging the agency to investigate the practices of three for-profit education companies (Career Education Corporation, Education Management Corporation EDMC, and ITT Tech).
Durbin has also written two prior letters to high school principals, counselors and teachers across the state asking for help to protect students from for-profit college abuses.
“Durbin may want to look at executive pay and executive pensions that administrators across Illinois public universities are getting,” Dabrowski said. “If he really cares about kids, especially the low-income kids that are trying to get their life on track, if he really cares about them he’d be looking at what the public institutions in his own state are doing.”