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Exclusive: Michelle Rhee to For-Profit College Industry: "You're Doing Incredible Work"

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She promised a bang, but delivered a whimper.

Republic Report was the first to report that Michelle Rhee, the hard-charging former chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools, would be addressing the Las Vegas annual convention of APSCU, the largest trade association for the controversial for-profit college industry. Not everyone is a fan of Rhee's approach to education reform, but she is a prominent figure, and we expressed concern that, unless Rhee used the opportunity to sharply criticize her hosts, her appearance would look like an endorsement of an industry where many schools offer a toxic mix of deceptive recruiting, high prices, and weak programs. It's an industry that gets more than $32 billion a year in federal aid and leaves many students jobless and deep in debt. It's an industry now being investigated for fraudulent practices by more than 20 state attorneys general.

Rhee responded with an article in The Huffington Post asserting that she indeed was "willing to tell [the APSCU attendees] the hard truths they need to hear" -- that "many" for-profit schools have "poor records." That the "problem" with the for-profit college sector "is that too many of its schools are failing students, and no one is being held accountable." She said he would "tell the for-profit colleges that they need to do a better job of making sure their students are getting a good education, are graduating with meaningful degrees, and are able to do so without being saddled with unreasonable debt." And if a school is "failing," then "it should be shut down." Rhee wrote that "Some of these schools seem to be engaged in downright malicious behavior, cravenly taking advantage of students." She cited an investigation by the Government Accountability Office that documented repeated cases of deceptive recruiting by for-profit colleges. And she praised the "gainful employment" rule issued last year by the Obama Administration to hold schools accountable for consistently leaving students deep in debt -- a rule that APSCU and its member schools waged a ferocious lobbying campaign against.

Republic Report praised that response, but we wanted to make clear to her that the bad actors she was describing are not some fly-by-night schools in a strip mall someplace -- they are many of the major enterprises that make up APSCU. We urged Rhee to look attendees in the eye when she told those hard truths.

To see whether Rhee would live up to her promise, and to otherwise report on the APSCU proceedings in Las Vegas, my Republic Report colleagues Lee Fang and Zaid Jilani applied for media access to the conference. APSCU denied these requests on the stated ground that their "policy only allows for higher education trade press to attend the events," and ignored our subsequent appeal, in which we stressed that we have extensively covered APSCU and its industry, and that our reporting is frequently cited in the trade press and other media. (Perhaps because previous coverage of its events, including Republic Report's video coverage, did not reflect well on the industry, APSCU also announced that it would bar reporters from many of the key sessions in Las Vegas.)

Although APSCU refused to allow Republic Report to cover its Las Vegas conference, we were able to obtain an audio recording of Michelle Rhee's remarks today. You can listen for yourself, but we didn't hear the kind of frank criticism she had promised. (The first 25 minutes are mostly about her experiences with public K-12 schools, but after that she addresses the for-profits.) Instead, in her prepared remarks, and in a Q&A with APSCU chair Art Keiser, CEO of Keiser University, and incoming chair David Pauldine, president of DeVry University, Rhee soft-pedaled any concerns she might have had.

Rhee said that there were for-profit colleges in the room "doing incredible work." She said that such schools should seek to ensure that lower-performing schools do better. She asked the schools who "aren't where they need to be" in terms of performance to "work harder, knowing what's at stake." Rhee did say that "we all lose when we allow people who are not doing right by our students to continue to operate." But she said that colleges should set high goals for graduation rates but seek "apples to apples" comparisons for accountability -- which echoed APSCU's own talking point that the low graduation rate of many of its members is acceptable given the many low-income students who enroll. Although she claimed in her article to support the Obama Administration's gainful employment rule, Rhee did not urge APSCU to drop its opposition to that rule -- or its pending lawsuit against it. Nor did she ask APSCU to drop its objections to President Obama's new executive order aimed at protecting U.S. troops and veterans from predatory recruiting practices by for-profit schools. Nor did she tell them that some for-profits are engaged in "downright malicious behavior."

Yesterday the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the nation's largest coalition of civil rights organizations, sent Rhee a letter expressing disappointment that she had agreed to speak at APSCU. (The letter quoted one of my articles for Republic Report.) I think they will be even more disappointed when they hear her remarks.

Listen to Rhee's remarks here:

Exclusive audio of Michelle Rhee's remarks at for-profit college convention

Also today on Republic Report: Why Are a Former President of the MacArthur Foundation, and Former Governors Kean and Rendell, Paid By a For-Profit College Group?