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Why for-profit colleges gave big to Brown

Brown campaign photo

Amid growing criticism and government scrutiny of for-profit colleges, Democrat Jerry Brown and other California candidates this year reaped a healthy chunk of campaign cash from education giant Apollo Group and its wealthy chairman.

The Arizona-based parent company of the University of Phoenix and its employees gave more to Brown than to any other state office seeker in the country, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported this week.

Some observers said Apollo likely favored Brown and other California candidates in part because of the potential profits here and fear of beefed-up regulation under the new governor.

"California is a huge marketplace and it's open territory, where some states are not," said Betsy Imholz, director of special projects at Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. Imholz has advocated for better regulation of the state's proprietary schools.

Apollo may want to ensure California remains as open as possible, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and an outspoken critic of the for-profit college industry.

The company may be trying to ensure that the state's regulatory body overseeing for-profits, the newly revived Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, is as "weak as can be," he said.

"If (Brown) were to be elected," Nassirian said in an interview, "he would have direct jurisdiction over how this agency operates."

The Chronicle of Higher Education analyzed Apollo's campaign contributions to state office seekers up to June 30, using data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonprofit organization that tracks state-level campaign contributions.

In state campaigns nationwide, Apollo and its employees gave $350,000 during the period, with about $96,000 going to campaigns in California, the Chronicle reported.

In that period, Apollo founder, board chairman and San Francisco resident John G. Sperling gave $13,000 to Brown's campaign, making Brown the leading recipient of contributions from Apollo among state office seekers, according to the Chronicle analysis.

More recent data from the secretary of state show that Apollo gave Brown's campaign an additional $27,000 in recent months. Plus, Brown scored a late contribution of $25,900 from Sperling for a total of $65,900 from Apollo and its founder. Brown also received $7,500 from Santa Ana-based for-profit education provider Corinthian Colleges Inc., $10,000 from San Francisco's Academy of Art University and $2,500 from Career Education Corp.

An Apollo spokesman did not respond to an e-mail yesterday requesting comment on the company's political donations.

Consumer advocates such as Imholz say California's for-profit regulator, the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, is a weak watchdog with little teeth. The agency, which is part of the state's Department of Consumer Affairs, began operating in January after the state's proprietary schools had gone more than two years with no oversight because Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger allowed the term of the previous regulator to expire.

The new agency exempts from oversight all regionally accredited universities, including the University of Phoenix, leading critics to label it self-regulation.

"The state of California at this point has completely delegated the task of consumer protection to an accreditor," Nassirian said. "They get paid by the industry, and there's no consequence to them if they're wrong."

Despite the fact that for-profit company leaders are rooting for Republicans, California's Republican gubernatorial candidate, Meg Whitman, didn't get a dime from Apollo.

"The for-profit companies already have a lock on the Republican party," Nassirian said. "Jerry Brown would be the kind of person that I would expect to be an ally (of mine) on this front. … What would be better (for the for-profits) than if they can co-opt our ideological allies?"

 

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