The For-Profit College Industry Is Losing its Most Loyal Politician
By Justin Miller | Sep 04, 2015
Congressman John Kline is not exactly a household name, even to D.C. politicos. And for the past dozen years, he’s preferred it that way. Kline has successfully flown under the radar while quietly becoming one of the most powerful politicians on education policy, reaching his apex in 2011 when he took the helm of the Education and the Workforce Committee.
Kline, who represents Minnesota’s 2nd District, announced yesterday that he will not be seeking reelection in 2016. While most are likely focused on the fact that this opens up a crucial seat in a noted swing district, you can be sure that the for-profit higher education industry is heartbroken.
That’s because Kline has notoriously been the industry’s closest political ally, taking gobs of contributions from for-profit education groups while fighting back regulations on the Hill designed to rein in the problematic sector. Nobody in Congress has taken more money from for-profits than John Kline—and since his appointment as the head of the education committee, his coffers have been flooded.
In 2010, he received $57,000 from for-profit institutions, according to OpenSecrets. In 2012, $204,000. And in 2014, $186,000. The money comes from the biggest (and most lucrative) for-profit education groups in the country. Most notable of them all is Apollo Education Group, which owns the biggest for-profit chain, University of Phoenix. In 2013-2014, the group spent nearly $400,000 in campaign contributions and in 2014 alone spent nearly $1.4 million in lobbying.
As the industry has exploded over the last ten years, so has its political influence and lobbying presence. Given that these schools are heavily dependent on federal student loans, wielding power at the Capitol is essential. The industry has become a political target for reform as it has become known for predatory recruiting tactics, lackluster training, and abysmal student outcomes. Recruiters regularly target low-income minority students who are prime candidates for financial aid, as well as military veterans who have GI Bill funding. When President Obama pledged to regulate the industry in 2010, lobbying became a priority. In 2009, the industry spent $2.9 million in lobbying; by 2011, that number reached $12.5 million.
The money has paid off so far as legislative reforms have run into various roadblocks. That’s mostly thanks to John Kline, who controls what education policy comes before his committee. In 2014, a bill that would have prevented for-profits from milking the federal aid system and targeting military veterans died within 15 minutes of being introduced in his committee. Kline said that the bill was “nongermane” to his hearing on financial aid.
Time and time again, Kline has used his position in Congress to beat back attempts at regulating for-profits all the while claiming that his biggest campaign contributors have no influence on his politics.
So as Kline announces his impending retirement, let’s keep an eye on what he does with the rest of his term as the gatekeeper on education policy. It will also be interesting to see the industry scramble as they try to find a replacement lap dog to continue championing their right to profit off the exploitation of vulnerable students.