Quad Partners, a New York private equity firm that is invested heavily in for-profit colleges, and whose founder has aggressively opposed regulation of that troubled industry, has acquired a controlling stake in the respected trade publication Inside Higher Ed (IHE), which often reports on for-profit colleges and the policy disputes surrounding them.
The Quad Partners website now lists Inside Higher Ed as one of its investments, among a range of education-related companies that includes the for-profit trade schools Beckfield College, Blue Cliff College, Dorsey Schools, Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, and Marinello Schools of Beauty.
There was no public announcement at the time of the sale, but Doug Lederman, one of IHE’s two top editors, confirmed to this reporter in January that Quad had purchased a majority interest in IHE in November. Quad Partner James Tieng is now an IHE board member. Quad also owns the influential college admissions management company Noel-Levitz and other education technology companies that contract with colleges and universities – another sector that IHE covers.
Lederman notes that Quad’s for-profit college investments are in relatively small college chains, not in the major publicly traded companies that have dominated the industry in the past decade.
But Quad Partners founder Lincoln Frank was one of two co-chairs of the Coalition for Educational Success, a trade group aimed at curbing the Obama Administration’s gainful employment rule and other oversight of for-profit college abuses. The group, considered by some a more aggressive counterpart to the longtime trade association APSCU, included some of the biggest publicly traded college companies – ITT Tech and EDMC – and was headed, for a period, by relentless Washington lobbyist Lanny Davis.
The Coalition launched an offshoot called the Foundation for Educational Success, which was charged with creating a voluntary code of conduct for the industry as an alternative to government regulation. The foundation and code of conduct were trumpeted in a press release and in a Politico op-ed by two members of the foundation’s new board of advisors, former governors Tom Kean (R-NJ) and Ed Rendell (D-PA) – neither of which disclosed that the foundation was funded by for-profit colleges or that Kean is himself one of the Quad Partners. The code of conduct had little impact, and soon after the Coalition for Educational Success, without explanation, simply ceased to exist. Its lobbying was covered by Inside Higher Ed.
In addition to using campaign contributions to acquire friendships with members of Congress, and donations to curry favor with policy think-tanks and advocacy groups, the for-profit college industry has purchased ties to the news media. For example, in 2012, the Chronicle of Higher Education, IHE’s older rival, allowed Career Education Corp., a giant for-profit college company with a high student-loan default rate, not only to sponsor a Chronicle-hosted event on loan defaults but to select all the speakers. Meanwhile, the largest for-profit college, the University of Phoenix, has been the lead sponsor of NBC’s Education Nation events, and also has sponsored education policy events held by the New Yorker.
There also is precedent – very bad precedent – for a single company owning both for-profit colleges and major media outlets: the former Washington Post Company, which until 2013 owned the Washington Post newspaper, as well as the troubled Kaplan college chain and a major stake in the even-worse Corinthian. Throughout the debate on Obama Administration regulation of for-profit colleges, company CEO Donald Graham has been perhaps the most influential lobbyist for the industry, while his paper consistently editorialized against new accountability measures.
Conflict of Interest
When informed of Quad’s purchase of IHE and Lederman’s comments, Barmak Nassirian, a higher-education policy expert who for years has worked for public-college associations in Washington, said, “This is just vexing – it’s not the way to run a media outlet.” Nassirian stressed that he had great respect for the work of IHE, and the talent and integrity of Lederman and co-editor Scott Jaschik, but said the purchase was nonetheless disturbing. “The high margins and easy money activity that for-profit colleges represent should be the target – not the owner – of investigative journalism outfits,” Nassirian said.
Inside Higher Ed’s Lederman said his publication’s situation was different from the Post Company owning Kaplan, because IHE and the for-profit colleges controlled by Quad would have only “a dotted-line connection through the investor.”
Lederman says that at the insistence of IHE, the purchase agreement includes a clause that precludes Quad Partners from any involvement in editorial operations. IHE was launched by Lederman and two cofounders in 2004, with a modest investment from three Washington, DC-area venture funds, including the owners of the lead-generation company Double Positive. Those three investors, who sold their shares to Quad in November, also had no role in editorial operations, says Lederman.
Lederman notes, correctly, that a trade publication always faces issues regarding financial interactions with companies it covers, including as advertisers. IHE continues to publish articles about for-profit college issues, and Lederman said that if there are significant references in IHE to specific Quad-owned companies, the publication will disclose the relationship.
“I would expect people to be watching us” in light of this purchase, says Lederman. “Our credibility is hugely important to us, and ultimately it will rise or fall on the nature and tenor of our coverage.” He says IHE will go on as before: “The proof will be in what we publish.”
The original version of this article appeared on Republic Report (republicreport.org)