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Higher ed community focuses on Post, Kaplan

In a lead news article today headlined "Watching a Watchdog," the industry publication Inside Higher Ed draws attention to what it terms rising concerns among higher education observers about the editorial independence of The Washington Post in covering for-profit higher education.

The concerns center on an editorial published in The Post on Sunday, as well as "direct lobbying by a leader of the legendary Graham family" on behalf of the for-profit Kaplan higher education unit of The Washington Post Co.

Before I go on, some disclaimers. . .

I cover for-profit higher education at the Post, along with colleague Nick Anderson, the national education reporter, and occasionally others in the newsroom. The Post has a separate editorial board, whose job is to form and publish opinions on issues of the day. The two operations are designed to operate independently. The Post's news coverage and editorial stance have been scrutinized for as long as the federal government has focused regulatory attention on for-profit higher education. Our newspaper's independent ombudsman discussed that coverage over the weekend, reaching the conclusion that the paper has been appropriately transparent in disclosing its considerable stake in the outcome of proposed new federal regulations.

(To see some of our previous news coverage, click here or simply type in the words "for-profit colleges" in the search field on The Washington Post home page.)

According to the Inside Higher Ed account, some policymakers and higher education leaders were struck by the tone of The Post editorial Sunday, which, the article said, "took a stance that could've come straight out of Kaplan's playbook." The editorial opposed the current regulatory stance. By contrast, editorial boards of The New York Times and Los Angeles Times have favored regulation in their editorials on the subject.

The Post editorial argued that regulation would constrict the for-profit sector, effectively narrowing the educational options of students. And, it contended, "the more options available to parents and students, the better." The editorial disclosed the company's interest in Kaplan.

Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, supports stronger government regulations. She told Inside Higher Ed she was surprised by the editorial, "not just to see The Post editorializing on this issue, but to look at what the board is saying." She and many others in higher education agree with the government position that for-profit colleges are in need of more government oversight.

I asked Marcus W. Brauchli, executive editor of The Post, for comment on the criticism. Speaking for the news operation he runs, Brauchli wrote:

"The Post's newsroom operates independently from the editorial page and from other businesses owned by our parent company. We cover the news as we see it, even when it affects other parts of the company, and we cover it without regard to the views of our editorial page."

Inside Higher Ed reports that Donald E. Graham, chairman and chief executive of The Post Co., has "visited several members of Congress to lobby on Kaplan's behalf," sourcing the statement to a staffer for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). The article notes that a man of Graham's stature would "get an open door in any congressional office".

I asked Graham about the lobbying efforts. He told me this afternoon in a telephone interview: "I don't do it unless the issue is of central importance to our company, and this one is." He said he spoke to lawmakers in response to the rising pitch of criticism of the for-profit sector. "I'm very glad of what Kaplan Higher Education does, and very proud to speak out for it," he said. "I'm speaking up as I think any CEO of a corporation should."

The Inside Higher Ed article quotes Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education, who represents non-profit and for-profit colleges. Hartle has this to say about Graham's lobbying: "For the first time in my memory a leading news organization is wading into a public policy debate unrelated to their primary business."

The Post Co., in fact, drew more than half of its revenue in the most recent fiscal year from Kaplan, whose higher education division has grown hand over fist in recent years, along with the rest of the burgeoning sector.

Does College Inc. come up garbled on your Blackberry? Try this address, and bookmark it for easy access.

By Daniel de Vise  |  August 24, 2010; 3:28 PM ET
Categories:  For-profit colleges , Public policy  | Tags: For-profit colleges, Kaplan Washington Post, Washington Post for-profit, for-profit higher education  
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I think the Post does disclose its position, and I disagree with Asher that it has to make clear exactly, or even generally, how much revenue PostCo gets from Kaplan. The editorial is weak -- it says that the legislation will restrict options but doesn't explain how, hiding it behind a mask of true but less-relevant data -- but that is a different story.

The real question is whether there is something wrong with Donald Graham, newspaperman, lobbying on behalf of for-profit education. (It's clearly not a problem for Donald Graham, CEO of a for-profit education company.) I know about the "wall of church and state" which is so sacrosanct in the newsroom, but to the outside world that wall looks like tissue paper. The Post and Mr. Graham should probably try harder to look like Caesar's wife.

In a way, Donald Graham lobbying on behalf of for-profit education carries echoes of Philip Graham intervening on behalf of integrated swimming pools. That kind of intervention -- of using the power of communications media to exert a direct influence on public policy -- doesn't sit well with journalism historians. As for the rest of us -- well, I suppose it depends on whether you believe the Grahams have the integrity to do the right thing, and/or whether you believe that they want the right thing.

Posted by: drrico | August 25, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Read these two articles by Danny Weil and then if you have the chutzpah to reply and of course if Donald allows you, I and the public I am sure as well, would love to hear the WPO spin on it.

Posted by: Youhavegottobekidding1 | August 25, 2010 11:01 PM | Report abuse

Dear drrico,

The difference between Philip and Donald is that the former lobbied on behalf of minorities and the latter seeks to continue to have government permission to steal from them.

Posted by: Youhavegottobekidding1 | August 25, 2010 11:06 PM | Report abuse


Your comment is kind of what I meant by "whether you believe they want the right thing." Some people will say that the ends justify the means, and if you believe, as some good-hearted people genuinely do, that for-profits help poor people to get access to education they otherwise couldn't afford, then perhaps the means might be all right.

Incidentally, I looked at your blog, and I'll say that it will be hard for any reporter to respond to the allegations you make until after you publish the details. I look forward to seeing them.

Posted by: drrico | August 26, 2010 8:52 AM | Report abuse

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