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In a little-noticed action, on August 18, the Department of Education announced a rule change that will further loosen accountability of for-profit colleges. The move signals a continuation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ American Legislative Exchange Council-inspired agenda: favoring the interests of fraudulent for-profit colleges over victimized students, and dismantling higher education accountability structures.
In 2010, the administration of then-President Barack Obama announced new rules designed to ensure that for-profit career preparatory colleges yielded appropriate levels of “gainful employment” for their graduates. According to The Washington Post, the rule “effectively would shut down for-profit programs that repeatedly fail to show, through certain measures, that graduates are earning enough to pay down the loans taken out to attend those programs.” After a series of court challenges, and a process of negotiated rulemaking, the final guidelines were set to be instituted on July 1, 2017. Even before the rules were implemented, evidence indicated that the pending gainful employment regulations were already having an impact, with many colleges proactively shutting down programs that might have been noncompliant.
Back in 2010, right-wing media were up in arms over Obama’s efforts to make changes to gainful employment rules. For instance, Breitbart.com claimed it was a sign that “for-profit education” was “under assault” and that Obama was “intentionally targeting job-creating schools.” The Daily Caller asserted that the Department of Education couldn’t be trusted to fairly renegotiate these rules.
On July 20, DeVos spoke before the annual convention of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate bill mill that shares model right-wing legislation with sympathetic state legislators. In her speech, she outlined a vision of higher education that includes changes to the gainful employment rule. DeVos characterized the Obama administration rewrite of the rule as “textbook overreach,” claiming it was part of an “administration-wide war on every type of organization they didn’t like.” Several for-profit colleges and trade groups are past or current members of ALEC, including the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (the trade association of for-profit schools), Bridgepoint Education, Corinthian Colleges, and Kaplan Higher Education.
One month later, on August 18, the Department of Education published new revisions to the gainful employment rule, circumventing the normal rulemaking process. The revisions change the process by which colleges can appeal violations of the gainful employment rule, and according to Consumerist, they “appear to tip the appeals process in the college’s favor.” The new rules eliminate guidelines specifying what data would be considered representative of the student body. Now a college can appeal using any data it chooses, and “DeVos would determine what is reliable on her own.”
The new rule will likely make it easier for for-profit colleges to successfully avoid being sanctioned under the gainful employment rules. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, responded to the change by stating, “It’s clear Secretary DeVos has no intention of enforcing rules that protect students and instead is once again prioritizing predatory corporations and for-profit colleges.”
In addition to the gainful employment rule change, DeVos has made other rule changes that benefit for-profit colleges. She elected to delay implementation of the borrower’s defense provision, which would have provided debt relief to students who were defrauded by for-profit universities. As of July 26, she had failed to approve a single application from over 65,000 students who applied for relief from debt accrued while attending now-shuttered for-profit colleges.
The New York Times questioned whether DeVos’ Department of Education could be impartial about for-profit colleges when she appointed Richard Eitel, who had worked for a company that runs the troubled for-profit college chain Ashford University, to a special adviser position. DeVos also hired Taylor Hansen, a for-profit college lobbyist, onto her transition team. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) questioned DeVos over Hansen’s many conflicts of interest, and he resigned the same day. In addition, there are a substantial number of Education Department staffers with ties to dark-money “education reform” echo chamber groups that seek less accountability for for-profit institutions.
Despite “ethical questions,” Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos continues to invest money in the scientifically dubious company Neurocore, according to Education Week.
In an August 7 report, Education Week reported that DeVos has “significantly increased her family’s financial stake” in the “brain performance” company Neurocore, which “makes questionable claims” about its ability to treat a number of neurological conditions in children and adults.
According to Education Week, there are several concerns surrounding DeVos’ increasing investment in Neurocore: “ethical questions” about potential conflicts of interest and “fresh worries from some researchers about DeVos’s commitment to rigorous scientific research.” From the August 7 report:
Neurocore purports to treat patients by analyzing their brainwaves and other biological signs, then providing “neurofeedback sessions” through which they can train their brains to function better. The company often uses such treatments with both adults and children. It charges as much as $2,200 for a 30-session cycle.
Overall, the evidence base for neurofeedback is weak, experts say.
Still, Neurocore has claimed that its technology can “fix” problems such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and has “proven and long-lasting” positive effects on children with autism. In January, Education Week reported that the American Academy of Pediatrics and leading researchers all said there was limited evidence to support such assertions.
Now, the company is touting new research on its website. In a March press release, for example, Neurocore CEO Mark Murrison said a recently published study showed that Neurocore’s technology is a “viable treatment option for people dealing with anxiety or depression.”
Three experts consulted by Education Week all questioned the legitimacy of such claims, citing serious flaws with the study’s design that prevented it from generating credible evidence.
“They’re misleading, at best,” said Rebecca A. Maynard, a professor of education and social policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.
“It bothers me to see anyone misusing evidence and promoting things that mislead the public,” said Maynard, a former commissioner at the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the federal education department that DeVos now heads.
Raising her financial stake in Neurocore does not cross any clear ethical lines, and federal ethics officials signed off on the moves, said Larry Noble, the senior director and general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington nonprofit staffed by election-law experts who promote public participation in democratic processes.
But the transactions do raise some new ethical questions for DeVos and the public moving forward, Noble said.
“I would want to watch very carefully if there is anything the department of education is doing that one could argue is going to help that company,” he said. “Also, if she had any inside information about anything that could have influenced the value of that stock, and she increased her holdings because of that, it would be a problem.”
The Trump administration has failed to provide relief to tens of thousands of students who were left with a “near-worthless degree” and large amounts of debt after attending fraudulent for-profit colleges that have since closed. Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education has delayed implementation of new rules that would better protect student borrowers, and several recent newspaper stories have captured the human cost of the lingering debt.
During a House hearing last week, Secretary of Education Betsy Devos refused to say whether private schools that discriminate against LGBTQ students and their families would be eligible for federal funding under a proposed voucher initiative. Print coverage of the hearing and her remarks largely failed to expose the pervasive problem of anti-LGBTQ discrimination in state-funded voucher programs.
On May 24, Betsy DeVos testified before the House Committee on Appropriations on the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 education budget. DeVos was questioned at length about the budget’s proposed federal voucher program, which re-directs public money to pay all or part of the private school tuition for participating students. Lighthouse Christian Academy, an Indiana private school that receives public voucher money while openly discriminating against LGBTQ students and families, was at the center of the debate. DeVos repeatedly refused to rule out allowing schools that discriminate against LGBTQ students and families to access federal funding.
A Media Matters search of U.S. newspapers available in Nexis returned 50 news stories, op-eds, and editorials between May 24 and 31 on the DeVos hearing (20 original stories, 30 reprints). Of these, only one original story, in The Washington Post, briefly mentioned that voucher schools other than Lighthouse Christian Academy discriminate against LGBTQ students and families: "Researchers have found that many states allow religious schools that receive taxpayer-funded vouchers to deny admission to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students or children with LGBT parents."
No other story stated that other schools discriminate against LGBTQ students and families, mentioned any other state where discrimination has been found, or discussed existing research on discrimination in voucher programs.
As the Post alluded to, research has demonstrated a pervasive pattern of anti-LGBTQ discrimination in voucher schools across several states.
It is likely that many more voucher schools covertly discriminate against LGBTQ students and their families because state voucher programs permit schools to discriminate.
A 2016 study in the Peabody Journal of Education titled “Dollars to Discriminate” examined the language of all existing state voucher statutes and found that “none of the 25 voucher programs studied prohibit discrimination against students on the basis of sexual orientation.”This means that no existing voucher programs protect LGBTQ students from discrimination.
Failure to prohibit discrimination in state voucher programs has led to widespread discrimination against LGBTQ students and families by hundreds of schools receiving millions of public dollars. Media coverage should reflect the fact that anti-LGBTQ discrimination is already a serious problem in existing voucher programs, and that any federal voucher program that fails to address this discrimination would be likely to amplify the problem.
A Nexis search was conducted for U.S. newspapers and wires using the search terms “DeVos” and “voucher” or “private school” or “lgbtq” or “lgbt” or “gender” or “sexuality” or “sexual orientation” for one week starting on the hearing date (5/24/17-5/31/17).
President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 education budget calls for the creation of a new federal private school voucher program. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a longtime proponent of vouchers. A recent series of NPR articles raises a number of questions about existing voucher programs and suggests that expanding vouchers is not likely to improve educational outcomes
Unless you’re a resident of Indiana, you probably haven’t heard about Purdue University’s recently announced acquisition of troubled online for-profit college Kaplan University. This acquisition is highly unusual and has many unknown implications for Indiana students and educators and beyond -- and media’s limited and uncritical coverage of the unprecedented merger is exactly what the leadership behind the deal wants.
On April 27, Purdue University announced the deal to acquire Kaplan University, in a first-of-its-kind move to bring a for-profit college under the umbrella of a public university. Many details of the deal remain unclear, including whether the unnamed new university will operate more like a for-profit or a public college. Purdue issued a press release stating that “the creation of a new public university ... will further expand access to higher education.” Purdue President and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said in the same press release that he wants “Purdue be positioned to be a leader “ in online education.
Daniels’ rhetoric mirrors common right-wing media defenses of “innovative” (actually troubled) for-profit institutions that take advantage of students and often underserve communities that need accessible higher education most. Kaplan’s track record is no different.
Kaplan University is among many high-profile institutions in the for-profit online college industry that have been investigated for troubling practices that hurt students. In an April 30 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, for-profit college accountability expert Robert Shireman wrote that “a U.S. Senate committee investigation revealed that Kaplan in 2009 allocated more money to marketing … than to actually teaching students”:
Kaplan’s sales operation trained recruiters to steer prospects away from comparing Kaplan’s programs to other options by using a "fear, uncertainty and doubt" strategy aimed at getting prospects to enroll right away. A U.S. Senate committee investigation revealed that Kaplan in 2009 allocated more money to marketing and profit than to actually teaching students. The recruitment process was designed to get students to sign enrollment contracts — complete with clauses denying them the ability to go to court if there was a dispute — before they even spoke to financial-aid counselors about the details of financing the degree.
Kaplan tripled its enrollment between 2003 and 2010, mostly by signing up older students who would qualify for the maximum amount of federal student loans. In an industry already known for poor student outcomes, Kaplan’s tactics gave it among the worst withdrawal rates and loan-default rates of the 30 companies investigated by the Senate committee. In several majors at Kaplan, far more former students ended up defaulting on their loans than earned degrees.
In addition to the federal investigation, Kaplan has been or is currently under investigation in at least six states. Kaplan has settled lawsuits for using misleading advertising in Massachusetts and employing unqualified instructors in Texas.
For-profit colleges in general have come under increased scrutiny in recent years due to their low graduation rates and high student loan default rates. This scrutiny has led to calls for harsher guidelines to better hold for-profit colleges accountable for serving students.
Enrollment has steeply dropped across the for-profit college sector in recent years. As Fortune magazine’s Kaitlin Mulhere wrote, Kaplan University’s “enrollment fell 22% in 2016 and its revenue is down 40% from 2014, according to an annual report from Graham Holdings, which own[ed] Kaplan.” Kaplan’s rapidly declining business and dings to the for-profit industry’s reputation across the board mean that the Purdue deal is a timely opportunity for the troubled Kaplan University to reinvent itself.
And the marriage of Purdue and Kaplan also raises the possibility that the problematic behaviors of online for-profit colleges will be introduced into public universities.
A second aspect of the Purdue-Kaplan merger that ought to raise red flags for journalists is the manner in which the deal was developed and announced, and the lack of accountability built into it.
Purdue’s faculty members say they were not informed of the merger until an hour before the acquisition was announced, a misstep that angered many who viewed the lack of consultation as a violation of shared governance. The Purdue faculty senate has voted against the deal, calling on Daniels and the board of trustees to rescind it, although Daniels asserts that the senate does not “dictate” matters pertaining to the new university.
The unnamed Purdue-Kaplan school labels itself “the World’s Next Public University”-- but the specifics of the deal suggest the public will have little information about the school’s operations. Indiana Republican state senator Brandt Hershman surreptitiously added language into the new state budget specifically to allow the new university to avoid public disclosure laws. According to higher education reporter Goldie Blumenstyk, “in some ways, the new institution will be even less public than a for-profit college.”
As Journal & Courier’s Dave Bangert wrote on May 2:
Steve Schultz, Purdue’s legal counsel, said the [public records] exemptions were put into the bill intentionally to be clear that the new online university will be a different animal that Purdue and its regional campuses.
First, Schultz said, it won’t receive state money. And second, the New U will operate more like a nonprofit corporation and will not, he said, “meet the definition of a ‘public agency’” under state open records or open meetings laws.
Since the Purdue-Kaplan acquisition was first announced, major national broadcast and print outlets have largely stayed silent on the deal. And when some media outlets have covered the story, they’ve largely failed to mention Kaplan’s troubled history with high student loan default rates, low graduation rates, and federal and state investigations into its problematic practices, as well as the transparency issues that plagued the deal.
Database searches of transcripts from major broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- and cable news networks -- CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News -- found no mention of the Purdue-Kaplan merger for 23 days, despite the important implications it has for higher education beyond Indiana. On May 20, Fox provided the first national television coverage of the Purdue-Kaplan deal. Daniels gave a seven-minute interview to Paul Gigot on America’s News Headquarters. The segment briefly mentioned faculty dissatisfaction with how the deal was negotiated. There was no reference to Kaplan’s problematic history or the lack of transparency around the deal.
Among five major national newspapers -- The New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post -- only the Post and the Journal covered the deal. The Post published one article that discussed the state and federal investigations of Kaplan. The Journal published three news stories and one op-ed about the deal. Between these four pieces, the Journal made no mention of the federal and state investigations into Kaplan, but two pieces discussed faculty complaints about being excluded from the decision-making process (one of them just passingly) .
Local Indiana broadcast outlets ran 41 total segments about the Purdue-Kaplan merger on 11 different local stations of CBS, Fox, ABC, and NBC outlets in the Lafayette, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, and Terre Haute markets. None of these segments discussed Kaplan’s history of student loan defaults, its low graduation rates, its open records issue, or the federal investigations into its practices.
Indiana print outlets have published by far the most critical and comprehensive coverage of the Purdue-Kaplan deal, though they still failed to provide important context in some instances. Lafayette’s Journal & Courier has provided the majority of analysis on the deal, some of which was also featured in The Indianapolis Star and Evansville Courier & Press. The South Bend Tribune also reported on the merger. In all, 12 stories were written in seven local Indiana newspapers on the Purdue-Kaplan deal, six of which were reprinted in other local newspapers. Most -- though not all -- of these stories mentioned Kaplan’s problematic history and the merger’s transparency problems. Of the 12 articles, four discussed state and federal Kaplan investigations and six mentioned the lack of faculty input on the deal. Four articles mentioned Kaplan’s record on high student debt loads and default rates and just two touched on Kaplan’s low graduation rates. More than a third of the local articles discussed the open records exemptions for the new university.
More comprehensive media coverage of the Purdue-Kaplan deal and other efforts to privatize public education would be in the public interest. Local communities should be informed about education matters like the Purdue-Kaplan deal that utilize taxpayer money in potentially harmful ways, and they should have a say in whether they want their public institutions to be privatized. Because the deal has not cleared all regulatory hurdles, local and national media still have an opportunity to dig deeper into this story in the coming weeks and months.
Media Matters searched Nexis news program transcripts for CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, ABC, CBS, and NBC for all mentions of “Purdue” and “Kaplan” from April 27 through May 18. Nexis transcripts include all-day programming at CNN; programming from 5-11 p.m. on MSNBC and Fox News; and morning, evening, and Sunday show news programming on ABC, CBS, and NBC. Media Matters also used video databases Snapstream and iQ media to search for transcript mentions of “Purdue” and “Kaplan” on MSNBC and Fox News programs that are not included in Nexis, and on local broadcast news programs in the Indiana media market.
To analyze print coverage, Media Matters searched mentions of “Purdue” and “Kaplan” in major print publications The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. Media Matters also conducted this search for all Indiana print publications included in Nexis: Vincennes Sun-Commercial, Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, Evansville Courier & Press, Fort Wayne Journal, Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, The Indianapolis Business Journal, The Indianapolis Recorder, The Indianapolis Star, Lafayette Journal and Courier, The Noblesville Ledger, Palladium-Item, South Bend Tribune, and The Star Press.
In the lead-up to billionaire Republican megadonor and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ confirmation, numerous media outlets published deep-dive investigations into DeVos’ background, significant political contributions, potential conflicts of interest, far-right ideology, and negative influence on Michigan policies.
But since she formally took over at the Department of Education, the investigative work seems to have mostly dropped off; coverage of DeVos has focused more on her public gaffes than the inner workings of the agency she now runs. It certainly doesn't help that DeVos and her department have struggled with media transparency. As education media writer Alexander Russo wrote, "DeVos takes press questions at events only occasionally, has yet to grant a formal interview with a major national education reporter, and heads a department that only intermittently provides answers in a timely manner – through a spokesperson whose name reporters are forbidden to use. The agency has even struggled to put out her weekly schedule in advance of public events."
It's time for investigative journalists to dig deeper and shine light on DeVos' priorities, such as early staffing decisions at the Education Department. There's certainly plenty to explore -- many of the temporary staffers in the Education Department are veterans of the right-wing think tank echo chamber on "education reform," and some have anti-LGBTQ and anti-black track records. Like DeVos, almost none have spent significant time as educators.
As ProPublica reported, the Trump administration has installed hundreds of officials across federal agencies including the Education Department (known as “beachhead” teams). Though the positions are designed to be temporary, many are expected to transition into permanent roles, and may have “taken on considerable influence in the absence of high-level political appointees” who need to first be vetted and confirmed by the Senate:
Unlike appointees exposed to the scrutiny of the Senate, members of these so-called “beachhead teams” have operated largely in the shadows, with the White House declining to publicly reveal their identities.
Much about the role of the beachhead teams at various federal agencies is unclear. But close observers of the early weeks of the Trump administration believe they have taken on considerable influence in the absence of high-level political appointees.
The beachhead team members are temporary employees serving for stints of four to eight months, but many are expected to move into permanent jobs.
A December Politico report highlighted three newly named Education Department staffers who had previously posted offensive comments about women and people of color online. Two of the staffers still appear to work for DeVos’ agency months after the report. Kevin Eck, a special assistant to Secretary DeVos, had to apologize after he tweeted disparagingly in late 2015 about the “all black cast” of NBC’s The Wiz adaptation. Politico also documented several disparaging tweets by Eck about the LGBTQ community, including at least one post that pushed the dangerous “bathroom predator” myth people use to justify barring transgender individuals (students, in particular) from using the appropriate public facilities. According to his LinkedIn profile, Eck still serves in this role at the department.
The Politico article identified another staffer, Derrick Bolen, who “has tweeted numerous statements that could be considered insensitive to African-Americans and women.” Bolen’s posts include at least one in which he used a racial slur. He began serving as a confidential assistant to DeVos in the early days of the administration; ProPublica notes that Bolen “appear[s] to have switched departments” and may now be working at the Department of Labor. His LinkedIn profile does not list any past experience in teaching or education policy; instead, Bolen served most recently as a regional field director for the Republican National Committee.
Former Alaska state Sen. Jerry Ward served as a special assistant to Secretary DeVos until his reported resignation last week. Years before Ward worked as the Alaska state director for the Trump campaign or served on Trump’s inaugural committee, he was investigated by the Department of Justice for alleged corruption stemming from “his relationship with private prison advocate William Weimar.” According to local media coverage, federal prosecutors also concluded that Ward had interfered with a witness in a corruption trial in order to protect himself from prosecution. Little is known about Ward's resignation from the "beachhead" team; he has not discussed the matter publicly.
Journalists have already begun identifying new members of the Education Department staff -- beachhead or otherwise -- whose backgrounds raise strong conflict-of-interest questions. In March, The New York Times reported that Robert Eitel, a vice president for regulatory legal services at for-profit college operator Bridgepoint Education Inc., is on leave from the position to work as a special assistant to Secretary DeVos. Ethics experts told the Times that Eitel’s connections to Bridgepoint, in particular his legal work while the company faced several government investigations, could “bump up against federal rules involving conflicts of interest and impartiality.” Eitel was recently granted written permission from ethics officials to work on regulations specifically affecting student loan repayment; under his legal leadership, Bridgepoint paid out “a settlement of more than $30 million over deceptive student lending.”
Another early member of DeVos’ staff, Taylor Hansen, also has significant financial ties to the for-profit higher education world; he’s both a for-profit college lobbyist and the son of the former CEO of a student loan guarantee agency. As Bloomberg News reports, Hansen resigned from his role at the Education Department in mid-March, just one day after the department announced a reversal on an Obama-era directive related to fees that loan guarantee agencies can charge some students who default on their loans. The change, Bloomberg explained, “is almost certain to hand … a victory” -- and possibly $15 million in additional revenue -- to the company that, until very recently, was operated by Hansen’s father.
Jerry Falwell Jr. is the son of televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr. and the president of Liberty University, a Christian college in Virginia founded by Falwell Sr. in 1971. He has also been tapped to head a "task force on higher education” in the Trump administration, reportedly at the insistence of senior White House official and former Breitbart.com executive Stephen Bannon. Falwell Jr. has encouraged students to carry concealed weapons on campus in order to “end those Muslims,” and defended President Donald Trump’s 2005 comments boasting about sexually assaulting women. Liberty University also offers insight into Falwell Jr.’s leadership and priorities -- the school is closely tied to the Liberty Counsel, an anti-LGBTQ hate group, hosts extremist groups and individuals for campus events, and prohibits “sexual relations outside of a biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman.”
Little information has come to light about Falwell’s plans for the higher education task force, but reports indicate that he is “particularly interested in curbing rules that require schools to investigate campus sexual assault under Title IX, a federal law that bans discrimination in education.” Falwell has also said that he wants the task force to “re-evaluate ‘overreaching regulation’ by the federal government,” reportedly in areas such as college accreditation and federal loan cancellation for defrauded students, leading to calls for more information from Senate Democrats who see potential for conflicts of interest. “Mr. Falwell’s personal and financial interests on issues affecting student loan debt, recruitment, and distance education are extensive,” the lawmakers wrote, noting that Liberty University was the third-largest recipient of federal student loans in 2016.
The vast majority of “beachhead” officials within the Education Department have close connections to the right-wing “education reform” media echo chamber bankrolled by billionaires and private corporations -- but little to no experience in the classroom.
This list includes at least four staffers who have previously worked for education privatization groups led by DeVos in some capacity: Michael Frendewey, a communications staffer at American Federation for Children, which was founded by DeVos and led by until her nomination; and Andrew Kossack, Josh Venable, and Neil Ruddock, all former staffers of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which counted DeVos as a board member until her nomination.
The longer list of staffers who come from the dark-money “education reform” echo chamber includes Jason Botel, of the DeVos-affiliated Maryland Campaign for Achievement Now; Michael Brickman, a former staffer with the Fordham Institute and Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI); Gillum Ferguson, a former staffer for conservative outlets Opportunity Lives and The Washington Free Beacon; Alexandra Hudson, who has written education policy pieces at conservative outlets and think tanks like The Heartland Institute, The Federalist, and The Weekly Standard and recently worked as an education policy analyst for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (part of the State Policy Network of right-wing think tanks); Lauren Rigas of the American Conservative Union and the American Enterprise Institute; and Patrick Shaheen, a former staffer at the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity.
Let’s not forget the bombshell Washington Post report from April 3: Erik Prince, DeVos’ brother and the founder of the infamous Blackwater security firm, met with “a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and [then] President-elect Donald Trump” days before Trump’s inauguration. According to officials, Prince “presented himself as an unofficial envoy for Trump” during the secret Seychelles meeting although he has no formal role with the administration. The meeting took place less than two months after Trump announced he would pick Prince’s sister to head the Education Department.
Journalists have spent months investigating the complicated connections of education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, attempting to untangle her financial dealings and ideological stances on public education. In light of DeVos’ January 17 Senate committee confirmation hearing, Media Matters highlights some of the findings from quality investigative reporting on the billionaire Republican mega-donor.
Private corporations, lobbyists, and a national group connected to major dark-money, anti-teachers-union donors are major contributors to a campaign supporting a state education proposal that is fiercely opposed by teachers and parents, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
A proposed amendment to the Georgia state constitution -- Amendment 1 -- would allow the state to take over schools that are deemed “failing” and create an “Opportunity School District,” a move proposed by Gov. Nathan Deal and opposed by public educators and parents. As the Journal-Constitution explained, the amendment would “enable an appointee of the governor to seize ‘chronically failing’ schools and the local tax dollars that support them. Those schools would either be shuttered, run directly by a new statewide district or converted to charter schools under independent management.”
Amendment 1, which will be on state ballots in November, has attracted millions in funding from groups in support and in opposition of the proposal, including substantial funding from national teachers unions for an advertising campaign opposing the measure.
Teachers groups and the state PTA have spoken out against Amendment 1, explaining that its passage could eliminate local control by school boards and community members -- particularly in black and Latino communities -- and could shift tax dollars to private charter management companies or other groups that are subject to less oversight. As the Journal-Constitution reported, the National Education Association has spent heavily on a campaign opposing the amendment representing 35,000 Georgia teachers who are among its ranks.
But the identities of donors bankrolling the advertisements in support of the proposed amendment -- as part of an organization called Opportunity For All Georgia Students -- were purposely concealed using a group set up by supporters of Gov. Nathan Deal. The group, Georgia Leads, is categorized as a “social welfare” group with a 501(c)(4) tax status, and as such is not required to disclose its donors. Of the four donors contributing a total of $1.22 million to the campaign in support of Amendment 1, Georgia Leads contributed the most substantial amount -- $810,000.
On Friday, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an investigative report revealing some of Georgia Leads’ donors -- and the biggest names were private corporations and lobbying firms (emphasis added):
The biggest donor to the pro-OSD amendment this year — as of Sept. 30 — was Georgia Leads Inc., a fund set up to push Deal’s agenda. Georgia Leads had put $850,000 into Opportunity for All Georgia Students as of the end of September.
While Georgia Leads doesn’t disclose donors, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found more than $250,000 in contributions to the group by reviewing expenditure listings by companies and political action committees who file reports with the state ethics commission. All the donors have big stakes in legislation at the state Capitol, including AT&T, the retail store lobby, McGuireWoods (one of the best-connected lobbying firms at the Statehouse), Hospital Corporation of America, beer distributors and bank lobbyists.
The investigation also identified the national group 50CAN as another major donor to the pro-Amendment 1 campaign, second only to Georgia Leads. 50CAN is affiliated with a dark-money-fueled echo chamber pushing conservative, anti-union policies under the guise of “education reform,” and has supported past Georgia initiatives to open up schools to private competition, as well as similar Opportunity School District-type initiatives in other states. It is affiliated with a number of other national groups that received dark-money funding from anti-teachers-union private donors.
Graphic created by Sarah Wasko.
A recent Media Matters analysis found an overall lack of substantial discussions about college affordability issues on evening cable news programs. Notably, nearly a quarter of the total time spent discussing topics related to college affordability across all three major cable networks over the course of a year came from MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews. Hardball’s discussions about topics such as rising college costs and student debt burdens illustrate what may have been the driving force for a vast majority of the limited conversations the study found across all networks -- a tie-in with the current presidential election.
In a recent study, Media Matters analyzed a year of evening cable news programming on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC and found that, together, all three networks devoted just under 2 hours and 22 minutes in 56 segments, in total, to discussing college affordability issues over the course of the year. Fox News’ and MSNBC’s evening news programs each spent a little under an hour discussing these topics (24 and 23 segments, respectively), and CNN devoted just under 35 minutes, or nine segments.
MSNBC’s Hardball single-handedly accounted for just over a quarter of the total number of qualifying segments in this study and nearly half an hour of total discussion time.
Why did Hardball account for such a large proportion of the total substantial discussion in Media Matters’ analysis? One finding suggests it was an election-year phenomenon: All 15 of the Hardball segments included in the study feature at least one guest discussing a specific presidential candidate’s record, stances, or policy proposals related to college affordability. Although host Chris Matthews’ questions or assertions about candidates’ stances often only grazed the surface, they show that cable news programs are capable of providing more in-depth coverage on college affordability when the interests of the host, guests, and the public converge.
In many of these segments, Matthews introduced the topic by asking guests -- often strategists or campaign surrogates -- to explain higher education policy differences between the two then-Democratic presidential hopefuls: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Discussions of these differences frequently focused on political strategy and voter appeal as much as on the details of the proposals.
Though many of these exchanges were brief or limited in scope, Matthews’ questions about Sanders’ and/or Clinton’s policy proposals demonstrate that evening cable news has the capacity to provide detailed, policy-focused discussions under the right circumstances: when guests are eager to talk about the issue, hosts are prepared to ask questions, and viewers have demonstrated a desire for more information.
The presidential race appears to have dictated these particular circumstances for the year studied. In fact, the majority of qualifying guests on each of the three cable networks specifically talked about at least one presidential candidate’s record or views on a college affordability issue -- or they were themselves a candidate at the time of their appearance.
When considering only those guests who spoke substantially about college affordability topics (many guests were participants in multitopic discussions, but did not speak specifically about college affordability), that number jumps even higher. Nearly 90 percent of guests who discussed college costs, student loans, or impacts of the national student debt burden also mentioned a specific presidential candidate’s record or stances on these issues.
With so many of the college affordability discussions on evening cable news closely tied to the presidential election, it’s unclear what will happen to those (already limited) conversations after November.
Image created by Sarah Wasko. Video created by Coleman Lowndes.
Evening cable news programs rarely discuss college affordability issues, and they even more rarely feature guests who present relevant expertise or recent personal experiences in these discussions. In a recent analysis of evening cable news programming, Media Matters found an overall apparent lack of student or borrower guests participating in these conversations, while the majority of guests were white, male, and 35 or older. Though Fox News programs featured the most student guests, the network’s discussions of college affordability were limited and they often allowed older, white hosts and guests to push outdated math about college costs and dismiss the experiences of students who are struggling to afford higher education.
In a recent study, Media Matters analyzed an entire year of evening cable news programming and found that Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC together spent just 2 hours and 22 minutes -- 56 total segments -- airing substantial discussion of topics related to college affordability. Of the 56 segments, almost half (24) were aired on Fox News. Of the 127 total guests participating in these segments across all three networks, eight were identified as current students -- all appearing in segments on Fox.
Considering the overall lack of interviews and panels discussing college affordability across all the networks, including four segments with eight student guests throughout a year of programming is not a significant accomplishment. All three networks ought to be including more guests who can share recent, personal experiences with paying for higher education in conversations about college costs or student debt. Two Fox News evening programs -- On The Record with Greta Van Susteren and Hannity -- took this initial step by featuring student guests, but the discussions were still largely dictated by the hosts.
And Fox’s comparatively better inclusion of student guests in college affordability discussions did not yield more substantive discussions.
On The Record featured a total of seven college students in discussions of student debt or college affordability, across three panel segments. The stated topic of all three segments was the millennial vote, yet each featured some exchanges about college affordability issues. In two of the segments, host Greta Van Susteren asked Democrat student guests if they were planning to vote based on their desire for “free” college. In the third segment, Van Susteren asked student guests, “Who do [millennials] blame for the student loan problem? ... Republicans or Democrats?” And later she asked which party the guests believed would help alleviate student loan debts. The guests -- all of whom explained that they were planning to vote for Republican candidates in the 2016 election -- all declined to “blame” a single party or to conclude that only one party could provide solutions. Together, as defined by the Media Matters analysis, substantial discussion of college affordability in these three segments totaled eight minutes.
In another segment, Fox News’ Hannity featured a 37-second exchange in which a young viewer asked in a video message what host Sean Hannity would do to “help students like me who are going to be in crippling debt after graduation.” Hannity advised students to forego attending a “big-name school” in favor of a (supposedly) more affordable option, then concluded that “of course, working hard never hurt anybody.”
Meanwhile, other Fox News evening programs -- although they included ostensible firsthand experiences -- were responsible for some of the most misleading and dismissive segments in our analysis. In discussions on The O’Reilly Factor and The Kelly File, Fox figures pushed claims that students could afford higher education in 2016 if they simply “work for it,” citing their own experiences attending college 24 to 45 years ago when it was still practical to afford tuition through part-time work.
On The Kelly File, host Megyn Kelly and Fox & Friends’ Brian Kilmeade discussed Fox colleague Neil Cavuto’s daytime interview with a student activist guest about the Million Student March. Kilmeade began the discussion by diminishing student concerns about affordable loan payments, then pivoted to listing the cost of tuition at several private, four-year colleges and suggesting that if students are accepted to those schools but cannot afford the sticker price, “Guess what? Maybe you can’t go. You have to go to a college that you can afford, and you work your way up.” Kelly cited her own college experience, arguing, “I took out loans. I paid them back. That’s how it works in this country.” Kilmeade agreed, saying, “It’s unbelievable.” Throughout the segment, Kelly repeatedly mocked student protesters, suggesting they were asking for “the one percenters to pay for your life,” and asking, “Why do they even have to buy a crib? It’s unfair.”
In 1992, when Kelly graduated from college, the average sticker price (tuition, fees, room, and board) for a full year of full-time attendance at a private research university like her alma mater was $17,572, which amounts to $30,166 in 2016 when adjusted for inflation. For Kilmeade, who graduated in 1986, it was $11,034, or $24,248 in 2016 inflation-adjusted dollars. Today, both schools cost more than twice what they did when Kelly and Kilmeade were students -- attending Kelly’s alma mater as a full-time student costs $63,344. For Kilmeade’s alma mater, the figure is $49,582. These numbers do not include transportation, books, or health insurance, among other additional costs.
On The O’Reilly Factor, host Bill O’Reilly blamed students for incurring student debt by choosing to attend “Harvard,” arguing that students ought to attend state universities or community colleges where tuition is more “reasonable.” Schools in the New York state system, according to O’Reilly, cost “a bit, but it’s not punitive.” Fox News analyst Kirsten Powers attempted to explain that rising costs can be prohibitive for students from low-income families and that his argument reinforces a “class system where only certain people can go to college.” O’Reilly responded, “The argument can be made that -- and millions of Americans have done it -- that you can get a good education, but you must work for it.” O’Reilly asked Powers, “Why do they think they’re owed all this by the government? What is that mentality? I don’t get that. I never took a penny from the government.” The discussion then devolved into O’Reilly claiming that child hunger was a “myth.”
In another segment from April, O’Reilly disparaged young people who supported free public college tuition -- at the time, a policy proposal from then-Democratic presidential candidate Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders -- explaining that he had “never taken anything from anybody in [his] life.” O’Reilly dismissed attempts from economist Austan Goolsbee to point out how college costs have risen significantly since O’Reilly was a student. O’Reilly focused instead on his mid-career graduate school attendance at Harvard University in the 1990s (years after he became a nationally recognized media figure) to attempt to rebut Goolsbee, rather than drawing the more appropriate and even less compelling analogy to his undergraduate college experience decades earlier.
O’Reilly graduated college in 1971, when the average sticker price for a full year of full-time attendance at a private liberal arts college like his alma mater was $2,599, or $15,456 in 2016 dollars when adjusted for inflation. Today the cost for the first year of full-time attendance at the same school -- which, again, does not include many estimated additional costs associated with attending college -- is $49,860.
Images created by Sarah Wasko.
Evening cable news programs rarely discuss college affordability issues, and when they do, they even more rarely feature guests who present relevant, recent personal experiences. In a recent analysis of evening cable news programming, Media Matters found an apparent lack of student or borrower guests participating in these cable news conversations relating to college affordability, while the majority of guests were white, male, and 35 or older. By limiting the demographic diversity of guests, media are shutting out the voices of those most affected by these issues.
In a recent study, Media Matters analyzed an entire year of evening cable news programming and found that Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC together spent just 2 hours and 22 minutes airing substantial discussion of topics related to college affordability. In those discussions, networks invited disproportionately white, male guests who were 35 or older. Among 127 total guests participating in these discussions, just 6 percent were identified as current students and only 2 percent discussed their own current or recent experiences borrowing money to pay for college. In short, the voices dominating evening cable news seem to not be those of the individuals most affected by today’s skyrocketing college costs or unmanageable student loan burdens. By inviting fewer women, young people, people of color, students, and borrowers, to participate in these segments, networks are limiting the substance of college affordability discussions and depriving viewers of an accurate picture of college costs and student debt.
Across all three networks, 58 percent of guests participating in discussions about college affordability were men. However, research shows that women are more likely to take out student loans than men, and that women need college degrees to access employment opportunities more than men do. The gender pay gap also makes getting out of debt all the more difficult for women, in particular for black and Hispanic women, even as women dedicate a higher percentage of their earnings toward paying off that debt.
Seventy-three percent of cable evening news guests discussing college affordability topics were white. Twenty percent of guests were black, 6 percent were Hispanic, and 4 percent were Asian-American. (Two percent of guests were coded for an undetermined race, and multiracial guests were coded for multiple races or ethnicities as applicable.)
Yet black and Hispanic students, borrowers, and families experience the financial strain of attending college more acutely at every step in the process -- from the initial decision about what type of higher education to pursue, to borrowing and making loan payments, to struggling for financial security decades after college attendance. Black and Hispanic students are more likely to attend schools with fewer resources for financial aid, while black and low-income students, in particular, are more likely to take out loans to pay for school and to have higher loan balances. Greater financial strain while attending college can also lead black and Hispanic students to drop out at higher rates, which in turn impacts their ability to find employment and pay down even small amounts of debt.
More than three-quarters of cable evening news guests discussing college affordability were 35 or older -- and 40 percent were 51 or older (of those guests whose ages were publicly available). Across all three networks, only 6 percent of guests discussing college affordability issues were identified as students, and only 2 percent -- three guests across all networks for the entire year studied -- discussed their own personal or recent experiences borrowing to pay for higher education.
Though it is possible that more guests are currently paying off student or parent education loans or perhaps are enrolled in college currently than were coded in Media Matters’ analysis, those guests didn’t talk about such experiences during their appearances. Overwhelmingly, the discussions of topics like rising college costs, borrowing to pay for school, and student loan burdens did not include guests sharing relevant, first-hand experiences paying for college in recent years.
Yet study after study highlights the “many crises of student loans,” detailing how today’s complex system of higher education and the debt-based system most use to pay for it are shutting out low-income students, veterans, and other groups of Americans who are often already marginalized in media coverage, and leaving those who attend college but do not earn degrees and students who attend for-profit colleges even further behind. Perhaps greater overall representation of students and borrowers -- or better, students or borrowers from specific groups that are feeling the financial squeeze of student debt most -- would give evening cable news viewers a more complete understanding of how college affordability policy proposals might work and who they might affect.
A July poll from Pew Research Center found that 66 percent of registered voters say education is a “very important” issue for their 2016 presidential vote, and 84 percent said the same about the economy. Rising college costs and the impacts of student debt burdens are significant issues that fall in the intersection of the two topics. Evidence shows student debt can impact personal wealth, delay homeownership, affect personal decisions to marry or start a family, and that it has “cripple[d] retail sales growth.”
Student debt’s impacts on the long-term financial well-being of borrowers are reverberating throughout the economy, and they are likely felt more acutely by those individuals with the most unmanageable debt burdens. But a viewer who relies on evening cable news programming to understand the causes and impacts of the student debt crisis, or to learn about possible solutions, might not know that at all.
Images created by Sarah Wasko.