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The For-Profit College Industry’s New Media Coup

Inside Higher Ed gets disrupted, and a shady industry buys itself a shiny brand.

By Nathan Pippenger

Grim news from the Huffington Post: Quad Partners, a private equity firm deeply invested in for-profit colleges, purchased a controlling stake in the trade publication Inside Higher Ed last November, and didn’t make any public announcement of it. (Word appears to have gotten out when somebody noticed the new acquisition listed on their website.) Inside Higher Ed, which regularly covers the massive scam of for-profit colleges, is now mostly owned by a firm with a huge financial stake in making sure those colleges remain profitable and under-regulated. Freddie deBoer states the simple truth: “That’s about as direct a conflict of interest as you can get.”

deBoer, noting that the ad industry has also taken to preying on struggling publications, predicts that this purchase is an omen: “The continuing financial troubles of journalism as an industry has to have industry licking its chops.” But while advertisers and their stooges have to stick with euphemisms like “sponsored content” and “native advertising,” firms like Quad can take a more direct route. As Freddie writes: “Rather than trying to get these publications to run your advertising in a way designed to confuse advertising for editorial, or to use your PR flacks to pressure them to give you favorable coverage, why not cut out the middle man and buy them outright?”

It’s worth noting that this practice—targeting struggling institutions for a takeover and makeover—is not unusual in the for-profit college world. Investors looking to establish a for-profit college often proceed by finding struggling not-for-profit schools which have something for-profit colleges need: regional accreditation. As a Frontline documentary explained a few years ago, accreditation is extraordinarily valuable: not only because it can cost up to $10 million, but because it qualifies schools for federal student loan programs. Desperate to keep their doors open, not-for-profit schools turn to investors, who scoop up the school—and its lucrative accreditation—and promptly convert it into a for-profit institution. Only in recent years have regional accreditors stepped up their scrutiny of this practice.

Accreditation not only opens up a pot of money; it gives the appearance of respectability and trustworthiness. But students who have experienced for-profit higher education feel cheated—and not only because they take on huge debt in exchange for crummy job prospects. Many complain, as one New York Times investigation put it, of “instructional shortcuts, unqualified professors and recruiting abuses.” That same Times article characterized students’ experiences at the massive University of Phoenix as “infuriating.” Think about the traditional understatement of the Times, and read that again.

Press coverage of for-profit colleges is, for good reason, overwhelmingly negative. Simply buying up one of the publications that’s hurting your business is, in some cynical and brutish way, a step almost inspired in its simplicity. Like the tiny accredited colleges which investors purchase and remake, Inside Higher Ed is unlikely to be the same in the future. It’s just another depressing loss for journalism as the industry falls victim, again and again, to the lethal aid of profit-minded owners.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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