Is Obama killing the Washington Post?

Today’s Washington Post, surely with a heavy heart, reported that the company was shutting down nine of its Kaplan college campuses, while consolidating four others. Wash Post owns Kaplan, which runs for-profit colleges and test-prep services. This news comes on the heels of the company’s latest earnings report, which found that Kaplan-generated revenue had fallen 84%, due in large part to declining college enrollment.

The Post purchased Kaplan in 1984, and by ’07, Kaplan accounted for half the company’s revenue, essentially keeping the company afloat amid flagging print advertising and subscription numbers. Now, Kaplan’s struggling too, and bringing the Post’s balance sheet down with it.

Though Kaplan has been struggling for several years now, a big reason for that seems to be the Obama administration’s own recent crackdown on for-profit colleges. In June 2011, the Administration announced it would pull funding from schools whose students’ debt/income ratio was too high; this past July, it identified nearly 100 for-profit schools in danger of losing that aid. Essentially, the idea behind the regulations was to prevent for-profit schools from preying on vulnerable students (using slick advertisements and get-educated-quick schemes), by saddling them with debt their new degrees wouldn’t help them pay off. If they even finished with a degree.

As Suzy Khimm wrote earlier this summer:

“There is little evidence of a return to any certificate or degree from a for-profit,” the researchers write in a new paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research. By contrast, students who receive degrees “from a public or not-for-profit institution receive a large wage premium,” they explain, boosting their earnings by as much as 15 percent.

Kaplan’s for-profit colleges, as Vanity Fair reported in April, are no exception.

In recent years, as many as 30 percent of Kaplan Higher Education students were defaulting on their loans within three years. Kaplan has been sued by several former employees, accusing the company of activities such as cooking the books on job-placement rates to ensure continued eligibility for federal student-aid programs.

To add insult to injury, Kaplan’s higher ed division feeds on federal government funds, with 90% of their cash coming from Education Department grants. So they’re soaking us too.

All this would be easier to stomach if it wasn’t bringing down the Post with it. On one hand, it seems Obama administration efforts are working; shady for-profit schools are getting their comeuppance. On the other hand, because the Post entered a partnership 30 years ago with a company that looked very different than it does today (no higher-ed involvement), it’s suffering at the hands of successful liberal reform.

Makes one wish Graham hadn’t let Mark Zuckerberg back out of the Post‘s 2005 agreement to invest in Facebook. If the Post had retained the share it was originally due, according to one estimate, it might have brought in as much $7 billion dollars, more than twice the current market capitalization of the company.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.