For-profit universities have come under some pretty intense heat lately, with Strayer University and others being accused by the feds of selling worthless educations to desperate people. So how come the National Security Agency pays them to educate its workers?
Yesterday's merciless takedown of Kaplan University in the New York Times—"Kaplan is a cold-hearted scam to make money by taking student loans from the government, and leaving students with debt that they'll never be able to pay off," one former dean told the paper—is just the latest in a series of strikes against the industry, which churns out degrees in human resources management or health services administration in exchange for $24 billion in federal education loans and grants each year. (And yes, Kaplan is owned by Times competitor the Washington Post Company, for those keeping score at home.) The Obama Administration wants to change its loan guidelines to prevent for-profits like Strayer or the University of Phoenix from taking advantage federal loans; the GAO recently released a scathing report revealing their hard-sell and misleading recruitment tactics; and they're being hit with a flurry of lawsuits from students and former employees.
Sounds shady! Which raises the question: How come the National Security Agency, the supersecretive spy agency that's supposed to be staffed with hypercompetent übergeeks who are basically the only thing standing between us and terrorist havoc, pays tax dollars to educate its staffers at sketchy for-profit universities?
According to records we obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, NSA staffers have attended Strayer, the University of Phoenix, and Capella University—all of which have been caught up in one or another of the scandals facing for-profit education recently—in the last decade as part of its graduate fellowship program, under which NSA staffers get paid time off and a full ride to pursue "mission-related" graduate or undergraduate coursework.
Strayer and University of Phoenix have both essentially been accused by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan of lying to applicants about the value they'll get from their degrees, and Capella is the target of a fraud lawsuit alleging that it hid "abusive and fraudulent recruiting and financial aid lending practices" from investors. Other schools that NSA staffers have attended under the program include Harvard University, Georgetown University, and all sorts of other real schools of varying quality.
Another Department of Defense operation, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which is the U.S. military's "official combat support agency for countering weapons of mass destruction," has sent staffers to Kaplan University, Strayer, and University of Phoenix as well, according to records.
We asked an NSA spokeswoman what courses NSA staffers took at the schools and how they advanced the NSA's mission. She responded, "Please submit a Freedom of Information Act request for any public records regarding your research topic." The DTRA did not respond to a telephone inquiry.