It’s Much Broader Than Lobbying Against OPMs

Reintroducing Gainful Employment and gutting State Authorization Reciprocity

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Last month I published two posts showing that there is a coalition sharing common funding from a single family that made its initial fortune at Enron, and that this coalition is at the center of efforts to rein in Online Program Management (OPM) companies.

More than 80% of the think tanks, foundations, and associations that publicly advocated to kill rev share and expand [third-party servicer] TPS were directly funded by Arnold Ventures, including The Century Foundation. 13 out of 16.

And in some cases the majority of a group’s funding appears to come from Arnold Ventures. Based on Form 990 data, I estimate that the National Student Legal Defense Network has approximately $8.5 million in expenses in the past five years, and Arnold Ventures has provided $7.7 million of funding to that group. Not all groups are in this category, but when more than 90% of your funding comes from one source, that is not donation-based, that is for all intents and purposes a wholly-owned subsidiary.

In public and private conversations based on those posts, perhaps the most frequent question was a version of “why do they care so much about OPMs?” or “why are they so focused on OPMs?” With increased discussion of other regulatory proposals that could also have an enormous impact on online learning, it is worth addressing these questions.

I started my analysis last month based on the expansion of third-party servicer (TPS) definitions, but that big oak tree is just one in the forest. I believe the key to answer the why questions is seeing that this Arnold Ventures-funded coalition cares about their definition of consumer protection writ large, and OPMs present one issue that might be addressed with informal regulatory guidance - with the swipe of a digital pen.

This isn’t rocket science, but it’s seldom if every reported in public - let’s take a look at two additional examples.

Gainful Employment

The US Department of Education (ED) released a 212-page Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) last month (1,000+ pages in its initial unformatted form), and the headline regulation was the (re)introduction of Gainful Employment aimed at non-degree programs at all institutions and all programs at for-profit institutions. Set aside the merits of those regulations for the moment and just focus on which groups are publicly advocating for the new rule. Arnold Ventures, The Century Foundation, New America, Center for American Progress, National Student Legal Defense Network, The Institute for College Access & Success, Third Way, Brookings Institution, Stephanie Cellini from George Washington University, and Protect Students and Taxpayers Coalition. You’ll notice that most of those players are the same ones advocating against bundled services exception removal and TPS expansion, sharing funding from Arnold Ventures.

What about the last three groups in that list that were not in the table? Well, it turns out that the first two also receive funding from Arnold Ventures for similar work. $450k for Brookings Institution “to analyze data and assess the state of student loan accountability, develop evidence-based policy solutions, and disseminate the findings” and “to clarify and answer key research questions regarding higher education regulatory accountability.” $327k for George Washington University (through Stephanie Cellini, who also does work for Brookings) “to conduct and disseminate timely, policy-relevant research on higher education accountability.” Protect Students and Taxpayers Coalition, by the way, is not an actual organization but an informal coalition of other groups (many AV-funded) to write public advocacy letters.

In other words, the same coalition, most receiving funds from Arnold Ventures, as in the campaign against OPMs.

As a reminder, I am not saying that Arnold Ventures created the messaging and led all of these groups to their positions, but I am saying that AV has supercharged the coalition and that several of the groups are effectively subsidiaries for the purposes of publicity and lawsuits.

Gutting State Authorization Reciprocity

It turns out that while Gainful Employment rules dominated the coverage of the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) release, it was only one piece of a coordinated accountability (another word for consumer protection) package of proposed rules. And there is one area that will (if implemented) have far wider implications than Gainful Employment - the effective gutting of State Authorization Reciprocity.

There is a coalition of organizations that have long tried to prevent the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) from taking effect. They were successful in getting California to not participate (the other 49 states voluntarily agreed to participate), but there has been a continued campaign in the past few years to go further and the essentially gut the actual reciprocity regulations and force schools to individually comply with rules from each state.

The recent NPRM included such terms, as described by Inside Higher Ed:

A provision nestled within a sweeping set of regulations released last month could change which laws certain colleges and universities must comply with.

The Education Department is proposing to require colleges and universities to comply with the consumer protection laws in all states where they enroll students if they want to receive federal financial aid—regardless of whether they are part of state authorization reciprocity agreements. The proposal was part of the regulations that included new rules on gainful employment, which was the most high-profile proposal in the set. This change, though, would apply to all programs.

Currently, institutions can join a state authorization reciprocity agreement in order to enroll online students from outside the state where the college or university is located and bypass some state requirements. Without the reciprocity agreement, institutions would have to seek authorization from each state in which they want to enroll students and meet a variety of requirements.

At a minimum, these changes will impact any online program that enrolls students from more than one state.

Again, put aside the merits of the policy disputes and look instead at which groups are leading this campaign that successfully got ED to introduce these rules. Arnold Ventures, The Century Foundation, New America, National Student Legal Defense Network, The Institute for College Access & Success, Center for American Progress, Veterans Education Success, Project on Predatory Student Lending, Protect Students and Taxpayers Coalition, and the American Federation of Teachers. Of that group, only AFT does not receive Arnold Ventures funding.

Same organizations, same common funding, same methods.

Who’s In Charge

If you look more broadly across similar regulatory issues - adding in 90/10, Borrower Defense, and Change in Control - the answer to which groups are lobbying for the changes keeps coming up roughly the same.

Same organizations in the same coalition, same common funding, same methods, all in the name of consumer protection. And if you look at the advocated positions of these groups, they read like a roadmap that ED is following in this administration. Read the briefs from Arnold Ventures, The Century Foundation, New America, and others. Either these groups have remarkable insight into ED or remarkable influence. Or we’re talking about different sides of the same coin.

The next time you read media coverage of a higher education policy issue and you see “a dozen policy advocates and higher education groups” or similar, take a look and see if it’s really “a coalition of consumer protection groups with common funding and sharing common cause with ED.” Whether you agree with the coalition’s position or not, it is worth asking how education regulations really get lobbied and implemented.

I have one more post that will look at another angle on how this influence works.

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