U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey shouldn’t get off so easy on for-profit education ties | Pittsburgh City Paper

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey shouldn’t get off so easy on for-profit education ties

“Schools like the one Toomey invested in are bad for Americans.”

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey
The thing about an election cycle is that rhetoric, mud and accusations get thrown around so much that it’s hard to properly digest and react to everything. Because of that, unimportant and sensational items can get relatively big play compared to their actual news value, and smaller, more important topics can get lost in the shuffle and dismissed as minor.

That happened in June in the U.S. Senate race between GOP incumbent Pat Toomey and his Democratic challenger Katie McGinty. Media outlets like Time and the Post-Gazette found a connection between Toomey and the conservative, for-profit Yorktown University. Toomey was on the board, a financial investor and appeared in marketing materials for the conservative school. But the school was no Harvard; in fact, it wasn’t even a Faber (ask Animal House fans). It’s no longer in operation, but before it lost its accreditation, it offered lessons like the lecture that warned of the dangers of women’s studies programs at other colleges: “Your daughter will change her appearance, and may even change her sexual orientation.”

I admit, this story did hit hard for a few days in late June, mainly because of lawsuits that surfaced against Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s ridiculous education venture known as Trump University. Once that happened, any elected official tied to a for-profit — and there are a lot of them — was criticized for his or her involvement. Toomey certainly was, and his response was to call his involvement “minimal.”

It’s hard for me to buy that, though. Toomey is a smart dude; he’s a business man; he’s a financial guy. I find it hard to believe he invested and was completely hands-off. His campaign’s statement at the time makes it seem like he didn’t know how the school operated — by targeting potential students on one criterion: the ability to get federal financial aid or other sure-fire subsidies, like the G.I. Bill.

Let me be clear — Yorktown wasn’t the only school in the country that recruited like this. Many of them do, including Pittsburgh-based Education Management Corp. I’ve covered this sector since 2008 when public, for-profit schools had stock prices that soared above $35-40 a share and attracted the big investment firms like Goldman Sachs. A lot of these schools peddled an overpriced education that often didn’t result in a job that paid enough to repay the massive student-loan debt students had accrued. These schools have high dropout rates, but they have your money already.

The federal government has stepped in and placed tighter restrictions on these institutions, but there are still loopholes. For example, the schools have to meet certain criteria to get federal student-aid dollars. But did you know that G.I. Bill dollars don’t count as financial aid? The for-profits know this, and that’s why they count on veterans to help them make their money. These private schools educate only about 8 percent of this country’s student population, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis released last fall, but they collect more than 30 percent of all G.I. Bill money.

And that’s why I think we were too quick to let the Toomey/Yorktown issue pass into thin air like so many misspent Pell Grant dollars. Schools like the one Toomey invested in are bad for Americans who are just looking to make a better life for themselves by getting an education. The G.I. Bill is supposed to be there to help those who served this country get an education; it’s not a tool for education corporations to enrich themselves while selling degrees that, for most students, aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

It’s true that Toomey hooked up with Yorktown before he was elected senator, but for-profit education has to be something he believes in on some level, or why else would he get involved with it in the first place? Even now as a senator, he is co-sponsor and supporter of Senate Bill 559, which would roll back the safeguards the federal government put in place to keep the for-profit education industry in check. So if he’s involved in a for-profit school, and if he supports legislation to loosen the controls on this industry, I have a hard time believing that Pat Toomey will ever come to the right side of this issue — the side that protects low-income students and veterans.

On his campaign website, Toomey describes how he fights for veterans saying they “deserve the best care and nothing less.” Apparently that doesn’t apply to education, and that’s not something that should be easily forgotten especially as the November election nears.