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Why Did Senator Enzi Lead a Boycott of Today’s Hearing on For-Profit Colleges?

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Sen. Mike Enzi, (R-WY)., right, and Sen. Kit Bond, (R-MO)., left, during a news conference on Capitol Hill.

CREDIT: AP / Scott Applewhite

Today, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the HELP Committee, held a hearing on for-profit schools, featuring testimony from Wade Henderson, President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Pauline Abernathy, Vice President of The Institute for College Access & Success, Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter, and others. The hearing was the fifth in a series focusing on the worst actors in the for-profit college industry, and the first since the Department of Education released its final “gainful employment” rule last week, to mixed reviews.

Late last week, Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), ranking member of the HELP Committee, sent a letter [PDF] to Senator Harkin informing him that Republican members of the Committee would be skipping the hearing due to their displeasure with the process and an alleged “desire to embarrass” for-profit schools by committee Democrats. (Senator Harkin, for his part, has been consistent in emphasizing during the hearing process that there are some good actors in the for-profit industry.)

The HELP Committee Republicans reportedly reversed their decision when it was announced that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan would be testifying, but ultimately upheld their boycott after Duncan bowed out due to health issues and sent Under Secretary Kanter in his place.

From the beginning of the gainful employment debate, Senator Enzi has been one of the most outspoken and vociferous opponents of the rule, claiming that it would “disadvantage for-profit schools relative to their nonprofit competitors.”He has also consistently criticized the rule-making process itself, alleging that the Department of Education colluded with Wall Street “short seller” Steven Eisman in formulating the rule. On April 28, he wrote to Secretary Duncan requesting that the Department of Education release all documents related to the rule-making process, warning that “questions about the propriety and extent of the Department’s interactions with these individuals will persist until we are able to review all the relevant documents maintained by the Department.” 

Senator Enzi has raked in sizeable financial donations from the for-profit college sector over the years: In the last election cycle alone, Enzi’s campaign and leadership PAC received over $40,000 from these schools.

What is less well-known is Senator Enzi’s intricate involvement in the development of legislation over the years that ultimately allowed online schools like Bridgepoint (the subject of a March 2011 HELP hearing) to thrive off of backs of students and taxpayers. Bridgepoint receives 86.5 percent of its revenue from federal funds, including federally subsidized student loans, Pell grants, and GI Bill funds, and last year posted profits in excess of $216 million, despite the fact that “over 63 percent of students who enrolled during the 2008-2009 school year withdrew before completion.”

Here are some of the more notable milestones in Enzi’s close relationship with for-profit and online institutions:

- In 2000 he served on the Web-Based Education Commission [PDF] that released a final report that called on Congress and the Bush Administration to embrace an "e-learning" agenda as a centerpiece of our nation's federal education policy”

- On September 21, 2001 he was the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 1445, the Internet Equity Act. bill, which was never voted on by the Senate, would have would have amended the Higher Education Act of 1965to exempt institutions that provided online education from the law requiring an institution to have at least 50% of its students and classes on campus.  Interestingly, the bill would have also required any majority online schools to have cohort default rates less than 10%, a threshold many current online institutions would fail.

- On June 5, 2003 he was the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 1203, the Distance Education and Online Learning Act. The bill, which was also never voted on by the Senate, would have amended the Higher Education Act of 1965to allow online-only schools to receive federal student aid.

- Senator Enzi introduced the higher education component of what became the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. This legislation ultimately repealed the rule prohibiting institutions from offering more than 50 percent of any program online or enrolling more than 50 percent of their students in online courses.

- Senator Enzi’s key higher education staffer on the HELP Committee from 2001-2006, Scott Fleming, left the public sector to join the Chartwell Education Group. Chartwell lobbied on behalf of a number of for-profit college clients, including The University of Phoenix, American University of the Caribbean, and Liberty Partners, a private equity company that invests in for-profit colleges including Henley-Putnam University and Concorde Career Colleges.

Given this history, it’s unsurprising that today, rather than engaging in the hearing process, Senator Enzi decided to pick up his ball and go home.

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