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Sen. Marco Rubio speaks at the RedState Gathering in Atlanta on Aug. 7, 2015. (AP photo) Sen. Marco Rubio speaks at the RedState Gathering in Atlanta on Aug. 7, 2015. (AP photo)

Sen. Marco Rubio speaks at the RedState Gathering in Atlanta on Aug. 7, 2015. (AP photo)

Joshua Gillin
By Joshua Gillin August 12, 2015

PAC accuses Rubio of favoring for-profit colleges in education plan

A liberal political action committee is attacking Sen. Marco Rubio’s proposed overhaul of the nation’s colleges and universities, saying his plan unfairly benefits for-profit schools.

After Rubio went on Fox & Friends on Aug. 10, 2015, to lambaste Hillary Clinton’s call to make post-secondary education more affordable, American Bridge 21st Century went after Rubio’s own plan.

"Perhaps in his eagerness to criticize, Marco neglected to mention his long-time advocacy for and support of for-profit colleges," the PAC wrote on its website. "And Marco neglected to mention that his own proposed college affordability overhaul would specifically benefit for-profit colleges — institutions with a reputation for willfully misleading students, targeting veterans, in particular."

Rubio has spent a lot of campaign time talking about getting a proper education, but we haven’t learned many details of his strategy. Will for-profit colleges "specifically benefit" from his ideas to make education more affordable? We decided to take a crash course on his plan and find out.

Rubio’s plan not specific

Rubio took aim at current education practices in a July 7 speech in Chicago. Among his goals would be to change how schools are accredited, saying the current system favored traditional colleges.

"Our higher education system today is controlled by what amounts to a cartel of existing colleges and universities, which use their power over the accreditation process to block innovative, low-cost competitors from entering the marketplace," Rubio said in his speech. "Within my first 100 days, I will bust this cartel by establishing a new accreditation process that welcomes low-cost, innovative providers."

Accreditation is a system designed to evaluate whether a school or institution meets quality guidelines, and is generally performed by one of several regional boards. These boards are private groups that must be approved by the federal government, and are comprised of members from already qualified schools.

It’s important to keep in mind that a school must be accredited in order to qualify for federal financial aid like student loans and Pell grants. Sources told us that makes accreditation very attractive to for-profit schools, which are owned by private companies looking to make money.

Experts we interviewed did agree that unless you’re a traditional college, getting accredited can be difficult and lock out schools that could teach skills for less than a degree-granting university. Massive open online courses, boot camps and for-profit colleges often aren’t accredited.

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It’s not clear what the "innovative providers" Rubio mentioned in his speech truly are. Other than broad talking points, Rubio has yet to provide specifics about what he means, and his spokesman did not clarify what schools or programs would benefit from changes in the accreditation process. But that means American Bridge can’t say with certainty, either.

"Admittedly, we are slightly reading between the lines because Rubio did not utter the words ‘for-profit’ and he has yet to release a white-paper on this specific proposal," American Bridge spokesman Ben Ray told PolitiFact. But "code words" in Rubio’s speech like catering to "market forces" and "competition" show that he means for-profit colleges, Ray added.

Media outlets and critics like American Bridge have pointed out that Rubio has a history of advocating for the privately run schools. American Bridge argues that for-profit schools have a history of overpromising results to recruit students, especially in Florida.

In 2014 Rubio defended Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit company that late declared bankruptcy and closed more than 100 campuses after a federal investigation into its lending practices to students. The U.S. Department of Education fined the company $29.7 million for misleading students at Florida locations by lying about job placement rates.   

Rubio had asked the agency to continue providing federal aid to Corinthian while the company was being investigated. The company donated more than $27,000 to Rubio over the last five years.

Kevin Carey, education policy program director of the New America Foundation public policy institute, agreed that the schools usually have to conform "to join the club" and get accredited. But American Bridge is reaching to say Rubio’s plan aims to benefit those private companies when he mentions "innovative providers."

"I think it could mean many things, probably including online or technology-enabled education, but not exclusively for-profit colleges," Carey said.

He noted that Corinthian Colleges already was an accredited institution, so while Rubio may have supported the company, the example doesn’t necessarily apply to a potentially revamped accreditation process the way American Bridge suggests.

Our ruling

American Bridge 21st Century said Rubio’s "proposed college affordability overhaul would specifically benefit for-profit colleges."

Rubio has suggested revamping the accreditation process to allow "innovative providers" to become accredited. Exactly which schools or programs he means and why they need to be accredited is up for debate, because Rubio hasn’t given any details. That makes it extremely difficult for American Bridge to say the change is specifically to help for-profit colleges, despite Rubio's past affinity for the businesses. Many for-profit schools already are accredited, although experts say others may potentially benefit from Rubio’s plan.

Rubio's plan is not specific in benefiting for-profit colleges, so we rate American Bridge’s statement Mostly False.

Our Sources

American Bridge 21st Century, "Rubio, For-Profit College Beneficiary, Supports Plan Benefiting For-Profit Colleges," Aug. 10, 2015

USA Today, "President wants to tie accreditation to college costs," Feb. 13, 2013

Tampa Bay Times Buzz blog, "Rubio to champion online education," Feb. 10, 2014

U.S. News & World Report, "Marco Rubio Calls for 'Student Investment Plan,' More Choice in Higher Education," Feb. 10, 2014

Inside Higher Ed, "Rubio Calls for 'Swift' Overhaul of Accreditation," Feb. 11, 2014

Huffington Post, "Heald College Fined For Misleading Students About Job Prospects," April 14, 2015

U.S. Department of Education, "U.S. Department of Education Fines Corinthian Colleges $30 million for Misrepresentation," April 14, 2015

Bloomberg Politics, "Marco Rubio Went to Bat for Corinthian Colleges," April 29, 2015

Miami Herald, "Politicians turn Florida into for-profit college paradise," April 23, 2015

Miami Herald, "For students at for-profit colleges, wrong mix of loans can be toxic," June 27, 2015

New York Times First Draft blog, "Marco Rubio’s Education Plans Echo Some Obama Ideas," July 7, 2015

New York Times First Draft blog, "Marco Rubio Calls for Overhaul of the ‘Cartel’ of Colleges," July 7, 2015

Business Insider, "Marco Rubio has a wild plan to have investors pay for college and make money off students' future earnings," July 7, 2015

Politico, "Marco Rubio slams Hillary Clinton, higher ed ‘cartel’ in policy speech," July 7, 2015

YouTube, "21st Century Jobs Plan," July 8, 2015

Business Insider, "Marco Rubio's radical education plan could benefit one embattled type of college," July 8, 2015

Christian Science Monitor, "Marco Rubio slams college 'cartel,' proposes 'investment' plan for students," July 8, 2015

Salon, "Marco Rubio is bought and paid for by the biggest education scam in America," July 9, 2015

Bloomberg Politics, "Corinthian Colleges Donated More Than $27,000 to Boost Marco Rubio," July 16, 2015

YouTube, "Marco Rubio: College Isn't Just Expensive, Our System Is Outdated," Aug. 10, 2015

Tampa Bay Times Buzz blog, "Bush and Rubio blast Clinton college affordability plan as major tax increase," Aug. 10, 2015

CNN, "Hillary Clinton rolls out $350 billion, 10-year college affordability plan," Aug. 11, 2015

U.S. Department of Education, "Accreditation in the United States," accessed Aug. 11, 2015

MarcoRubio.com, "21st Century Jobs Plan," accessed Aug. 11, 2015

Interview with Ben Ray, American Bridge 21st Century spokesman, Aug. 10-11, 2015

Interview with Kevin Carey, New America Foundation education policy program director, Aug. 10-11, 2015

Interview with Judith Eaton, Council for Higher Education Accreditation president, Aug. 11, 2015

Interview with Terry Hartle, American Council on Education senior vice president for government and public affairs, Aug. 11, 2015

Interview with Alex Conant, Rubio spokesman, Aug. 12, 2015

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