Kentucky Showdown

Kentucky has become an unlikely battleground in the fight over for-profit colleges. From his office in Frankfort, Jack Conway, the state’s attorney general, is investigating seven for-profits, has joined a whistleblower lawsuit against Educational Management Corporation and is leading a group of attorneys general from 22 states in a joint inquiry into potential abuses in the industry.

Conway says his goal is consumer protection, an appropriate focus for Kentucky’s top law enforcement official. But an attorney general is also a politician, and Conway, a Democrat who lost a U.S. Senate bid last year, has made his crackdown on for-profits a campaign issue.

The industry is apparently taking him seriously, and scores of administrators from at least eight for-profits have donated to Conway’s opponent in next week’s election — one group of them allegedly at the behest of their employer.

One donor is Frank Longaker, president of National College of Kentucky, Inc., which Conway’s office has sued for allegedly misrepresenting job placement numbers. Longaker has said Conway is waging an “assault on for-profit education,” and Wednesday paid for an advertisement in the Lexington Herald-Leader that was fiercely critical of Conway

High-profile investigations by attorneys general, however, sometimes fizzle, particularly after an election. For example, many in higher education say the broad inquiry of student lenders led by New York’s former attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, who is now governor, earned more publicity than results.

Observers point to one sign that Conway’s efforts may be losing steam already, at least the multi-state investigation: Greg Zoeller, Indiana’s attorney general, has already dropped out of the Conway-led group of AGs. In a June letter to the state’s Commission on Proprietary Education, Zoeller called the effort “informative,” but said he decided to withdraw after four months. “Our participation with the working group has largely run its course by now.”

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Conway vowed to continue aggressively pursuing for-profits, assuming he beats Republican challenger Todd P’Pool next week. And he said the multi-state group already has far more participation than it needs, noting that 10 states would be plenty.

"We’re in it for the long haul,” Conway said of the group.

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