Last summer, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida asked the U.S. Department of Education to "demonstrate leniency" toward Corinthian Colleges by permitting the wealthy for-profit company to continue accessing millions of dollars in federal financial aid while it was cooperating with a federal investigation.
Ten months later, the company shuttered its remaining 28 campuses, instantly displacing some 16,000 students just days after it was fined $30 million by the Department of Education for a scheme involving "confirmed cases of misrepresentation of job placement rates" for as many as 947 students. The decision to close shop came after years of federal and state investigations into the company.
The top-tier Republican presidential candidate had made his plea in a letter—obtained by Bloomberg Politics—dated June 20, 2014 and addressed to Jim Shelton, the deputy secretary of education, and Ted Mitchell, the undersecretary for post-secondary education.
"It has been brought to my attention that the U.S. Department of Education has recently placed extreme financial constraints on Corinthian Colleges, Inc. by restricting the company's timely access to federal financial aid. It is my understanding the the Department of Education has requested extensive documents be provided by Corinthian Colleges for review, and Corinthian has acted in good faith to try to provide these documents as expeditiously as possible," Rubio wrote.
"While I commend the Department's desire to protect our nation's students from fraudulent and malicious activity by any institution of higher education, regardless of tax status, I believe the Department can and should demonstrate leniency as long as Corinthian Colleges, Inc. continues to expeditiously and earnestly cooperate by providing the documents requested."
Founded in 1995 by five for-profit education operators, the company once ran more than 100 campuses across the country, including in Rubio's home state of Florida. (He described his letter as written on behalf of his constituents.) In February, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced $480 million in debt relief for students it deemed were "harmed by Corinthian's predatory lending scheme."
Mitchell responded to Rubio on April 2, explaining that the federal investigation found "systemic deficiencies" in the company's operations and mentioned that the organization had "admitted to falsifying placement rates and/or grade and attendance records at various institutions."
In its final year, Corinthian Colleges reportedly said it received $1.2 billion in federal student loans.
"Senator Rubio felt it was important to protect the thousands of students in Florida from being punished and having their educations disrupted while the investigation was underway," Rubio spokeswoman Brooke Sammon told Bloomberg Politics in a statement. "His priority has always been to improve access to higher education options and increase transparency in higher education."
Corinthian Colleges contributed $5,000 to Rubio's Reclaim America PAC during the 2014 election cycle, according to the Center For Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks political donations.
But that's not the full story.
Rubio is a noted supporter of "alternative" forms of higher education, describing them in various speeches and statements as a way to help middle class Americans deal with rising tuition costs in an era where college degrees are increasingly vital to success. In 2014, he introduced legislation to encourage federal agencies to hire people with "alternative educational experience." As recently as two days ago, Rubio tweeted about his education proposals. Ironically, his message mirrored that of Corinthian's critics.
Two weeks ago, the Floridian pressed his message to students at Manchester Community College in New Hampshire. "We have only one way of providing higher education in America, and that is, we tell everybody, ‘You either go to a traditional college or you go nowhere,’” he said, according to the New York Times. "That isn't working."