Bad times have been good for Arthur Keiser, the Fort Lauderdale businessman who runs a chain of for-profit postsecondary schools that bear his name.
After more than three decades of slow but steady growth, his Keiser Career Colleges and Keiser University campuses are experiencing a gusher of students seeking new careers, thanks to the recession. His 21 Florida campuses enroll about 18,000 students, up 24 percent from a year ago.
Keiser likes to boast that, unlike public universities and community colleges, he's a taxpayer, not a tax-taker. But of his schools' $310 million in revenue last year, nearly 80 percent came from federal student grants and loans.
Now the U.S. Department of Education is threatening to cut back on the good times.
Officials want to restrict federal dollars to colleges like Keiser's by tying the size of educational loans to starting salaries upon graduation. They fear a replay of the subprime mortgage debacle, but with low-income, high-risk students mortgaging their futures on diplomas that may not pay off.
To debt-weary taxpayers, the proposed rule change may sound sensible. But it's no foregone conclusion, and Arthur Keiser is a big reason why.
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If the feds get their way, Keiser students could probably no longer borrow $33,000 to get an associate's degree in medical assisting, an occupation that pays about $28,000 a year.
Keiser, 56, makes no apologies for his tuition, about double that of public colleges. He said his fees generate a profit margin of about 15 percent. And he's blunt about the impact new federal loan limits would have on his schools.
"My programs would be closed," Keiser said, during a recent interview at his Lakeland campus. "All my bachelor's programs and most of my associate's degree programs would be gone."
But don't expect Keiser and his peers in for-profit education to go down without a fight: At stake is an industry that generated an estimated $26 billion in revenues last year. In addition to federal loans, their students are also eligible for state grants including Florida Bright Futures, veterans' funding and federal training allowances.
Members of the for-profit education sector, which includes giants like the University of Phoenix and DeVry, converged in Washington last month for three days of intense lobbying. Keiser flew there in his private jet.
The industry's trade group, Career College Association, has donated more than $150,000 to congressional candidates and parties so far in the 2010 election cycle, behind only Harvard and Stanford. Keiser has given congressional candidates more than $66,000 since 2009, putting him among the top 12 donors nationwide.
"I wish I could contribute more," he said. "Then I'd be in control."
Generous contributions aside, Keiser thinks common sense will kill the proposed rule change.
"This country needs what we provide," he said of for-profit schools, which enroll about 300,000 students in Florida and 2.8 million nationwide.
Government budgets can't keep up with growth pressures at community colleges and public universities, he said. Meanwhile, private, nonprofit colleges have seen their endowment incomes plummet during the recession, limiting their ability to add students.
"We are uniquely positioned," Keiser said of the deep-pocketed, for-profit sector. "We have the greatest flexibility in meeting enrollment demands."
But Keiser's claim that tying student debt to future income would shutter his schools raises questions about the value of his degrees.
"If you can't demonstrate that the indebtedness of the student bears a reasonable relationship to their future income, why are we keeping you in business to create more failures?" asked Barmak Nassirian, a well-known critic of the for-profit sector.
"This incredible looting of the public till is happening before our eyes, and there's no attempt to cover it up."
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In 1976, Arthur Keiser was a doctoral student at the University of Florida, studying Latin American history and hating it.
His mother, Evelyn, was finalizing a divorce and frustrated with her job teaching medical assistants at a South Florida career college.
"We knew we could build a better mousetrap," said Keiser. Using his mother's alimony, they launched a school in a Fort Lauderdale storefront in late 1977.
The school remains a family-run affair, with Evelyn Keiser, 86, leading the board of directors. Arthur Keiser is chancellor, and his wife, Belinda, is vice chancellor.
They now operate 15 Keiser University campuses across the state, including one on Memorial Highway in Tampa. In 1994, they acquired a failed school and renamed it Keiser Career College, now with six sites, including one in St. Petersburg. In 2007, Keiser bought and renamed a small chain of massage schools in the Carolinas.
Keiser said he sees Benjamin Franklin, who founded what became the University of Pennsylvania, as his role model. "I'd love to see the evolution of my institution into something that will have a longer life than mine," he said.
But he's a long way from the Ivy League. Offerings at Keiser schools range from diplomas in skin care to associate's degrees in occupational therapy to bachelor's and master's degrees in business administration. Last fall, he introduced a doctoral program in educational leadership with 40 students. The newest program is Keiser's College of Golf at the Port St. Lucie campus.
An advisory group of employers keeps the school in touch with market needs, he said, most recently leading to development of a dietetics program. Also useful is his wife's unpaid position on the board of Workforce Florida Inc., which oversees the state's 24 regional employment offices. Appointed to the board in 2005 by Gov. Jeb Bush, Belinda Keiser was named chairwoman last year by Gov. Charlie Crist.
Arthur Keiser said his schools have thrived because they tend to the needs of older, working-class students who have a career, not football and fraternities, in mind. He is proud that his university programs have the same kind of regional accreditation as most of Florida's public universities and private colleges.
Keiser said his schools reject about one-quarter of all applicants. Once enrolled, they regularly score in the middle on standardized tests given to all college students.
"We have the same courses, but the quality of our students is different," said Keiser, who insists that male students wear ties. "Our kids are smart but unprepared. We test them and mold them so they love to learn."
Keiser insists the schools never guarantee graduates a job, though he said research shows that 94 percent are employed three months after graduation.
But that's not a major improvement over their pregraduation status: 83 percent of Keiser's students work nearly full time while taking classes.
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Keiser students often compare school loans of $30,000 and more to the cost of a new car. But there are important differences in the types of debt.
"If you can't pay on a car, they'll take it back," said Edie Irons, spokeswoman for the Institute for College Access and Success in California.
"But the consequences of defaulting on a student loan are grave. It ruins your credit report, it makes you ineligible for any other financial aid if you want to go back to school and it's almost impossible to discharge in a bankruptcy unlike other consumer loans."
Keiser thinks the fear of students defaulting on loans is overblown.
"The government ultimately gets paid," Keiser said, noting that students' wages and even tax returns can be garnished to repay educational debt.
Keiser also complained that students can take loans not only for tuition, but also to cover books, fees and living expenses. "I can't control the size of the loan they take," he said.
Nearly one out of four former Keiser students default on their educational loans within three years of graduation, but the chancellor says that's not his fault.
"If I haven't seen students for three years and they default, why should I be responsible?" he said. "If you don't make your mortgage payment, is it the bank's fault?"
Irons' group found that for-profit schools account for 7 percent of all postsecondary enrollments, but 44 percent of loan defaults.
"A mortgage lender doesn't have anything to do with your income,'' she said. "But an education absolutely does."
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Though he has built his wealth on career schools, Keiser brags about sending his only son, Robert, to George Washington University, one of the priciest private colleges in the country.
"I'm a firm believer in a well-rounded education," said Keiser, who got his undergraduate degree in history at Tulane. "I wanted my son to have the same. But there should be an alternative to public schools and private nonprofits that just serve rich kids."
He insists there are better ways to measure the quality of for-profit schools than by cracking down on its students' access to federal loans.
"Unless the goal is to eliminate for-profit institutions, it's not workable," he said of the proposal to limit debt. "We're creating an environment where taking out debt is bad, but education is an investment. And if we get confused about that, we hurt a lot of kids."
Critics like Nassirian said they're still waiting to see evidence that for-profits schools do more good than harm.
"Reeling students in and leaving them saddled with debt and worthless credentials is not positive intervention," he said. "Too many for-profit schools are playing a game of three-card monte with public subsidies, and taxpayers and students are the losers."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2996.