President Barack Obama's ties to the for-profit college industry have been under scrutiny since February, when Vistria Group, a firm founded by his friend Marty Nesbitt, announced it was among a group of investors in negotiations to buy the company that owns the University of Phoenix. Now, pundits are stepping up their criticism as Obama-linked officials try to get the sale of the Apollo Education Group approved by the Education Department, Politico reported exclusively Wednesday.
“The irony is not lost on us,” an anonymous Republican congressional aide told Politico. “It’s quite rich, when you have former Obama administration officials who used to denigrate for-profit education now profiting off it.”
The Education Department has to OK the University of Phoenix's new leadership before the sale. Politico reported that people like Tony Miller, a former deputy education secretary and now Vistria chief operating officer, have been covertly meeting with and reassuring Senate Democrats like Elizabeth Warren, who has pushed the White House to crack down on the for-profit college industry.
For-profit colleges have been accused of misleading students about their job prospects, recruiting them too aggressively and not providing quality education. The Obama administration has spent years curbing the schools' influence, launching investigations into their practices, holding them accountable for student success and recently considering withdrawing approval of one of the largest accreditors.
In a February news release, Miller said he was "excited by the opportunity to build on the transformational work being done by the company" and planned to "continue supporting the organization’s commitment to operating in a manner consistent with the highest ethical standards."
However, watchdogs have been taking notice of what's going on behind the scenes of the $1.1 billion deal, expressing doubts over the group's true intentions.
"So the for-profit education industry was allegedly a student-abusing wreck. But now we are told that under Mr. Miller, Apollo will be a paragon of virtue," the Wall Street Journal wrote in an opinion piece earlier this year. "When did this alleged corporate villain of the Obama era suddenly become dedicated to the welfare of its customers?"
Vistria told Politico it "expect[ed] the department to evaluate this proposed transaction on the merits." David Bergeron, a postsecondary education fellow at the Center for American Progress, told Inside Higher Ed in April there wasn't much of a conflict of interest due to lax restrictions on what officials can do after they leave the Education Department.
But others remained wary.
"What better way to win a regulatory blessing than have a former senior education official like Mr. Miller commune with his old regulatory comrades," the Journal wrote. "Hey, Tony, great to see you; any job for me after, say, Jan. 20, 2017?"
The Vistria Group is working with the Najafi Companies and Apollo Global Management, which isn't affiliated with the current owners, on the sale.