For-Profit Colleges and Astro Turf
by Daniel Luzer
How are America’s proprietary schools looking to help preserve their profit margins now that the Department of Education’s getting a little nosy? There are several tactics.
There’s the “student voices” tactic, in which highly coached students at for-profit schools argue that more scrutiny might limit their chances to get ahead. There’s the “honest broker” tactic, in which a highly-respected businessman and journalist comes to congress to argue that heightened scrutiny of for-profits will push poor students out and is furthermore probably contrary to the wishes of the presidential administration.
There’s a new tactic too, which might be called something like “synthetic advocates.” According to a piece by Stephen Burd at the New America Foundation, one for-profit higher education institution is getting its employees to advocate for the company:
Education Management Corporation (EDMC) has hired DCI Group, a controversial Republican advocacy and public relations firm that is expert in the art of manufacturing grass-roots lobbying campaigns for corporations (otherwise known as “astroturfing”) to contact the company’s employees individually to help them craft letters to the U.S. Department of Education opposing the administration’s new proposed “gainful employment” regulations.
Through the contract with DCI Group EDMC workers will help lobby for their company, almost as if they were real grassroots activists. DCI calls the employees at work, takes down their information, and then spits out some personalized letters.
“These personalized letters will then be delivered to you for a signature, along with a pre-addressed, stamped envelope.” Then employees can just send the letters on off to Arne Duncan because, you know, Duncan really needs a lot more information about how EDMC feels about gainful employment.
According to an email Todd Nelson, EDMC’s chief executive officer, sent to staff last week, this entire effort is being done “on behalf of our students.” Actual students are apparently uninvolved in lobbying Secretary Duncan.