Laureate IPO still pending amid political flap, industry crackdown
Douglas L. Becker, chairman and CEO of Laureate Education, takes part on a panel during the second day of Latin America Clinton Global Initiative in Rio de Janeiro in 2013. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Dado Galdieri, Bloomberg ** Usable by BS, CT, DP, FL, HC, MC, OS, SD, CGT and CCT ** (Dado Galdieri / Bloomberg)
Arrangement with Bill Clinton put Laureate in middle of presidential election.
When Baltimore-based Laureate Education decided to go public last fall, the for-profit university system had just finished a rapid expansion and was preparing to reap the benefits of its newfound global reach.
The company and founder Douglas L. Becker made news this summer when tax returns released by the Clinton campaign showed that Laureate had paid former President Bill Clinton millions of dollars to serve as its honorary chairman while it was acquiring schools around the globe and Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.
Like the rest of the for-profit education industry, the company also remains under intense scrutiny from federal regulators. The Obama administration has crafted a bevy of regulations to crack down on for-profit education companies that leave university students unable to pay their debts, and three Laureate schools are among those flagged for extra review by the U.S. Department of Education.
Amid the challenges, Laureate’s initial public offering has remained on the shelf.
“The timing may not be so good,” said Kathleen Smith, a principal at Renaissance Capital, a manager of IPO-focused funds. “Maybe when the dust settles it will be a better time.”
Laureate officials declined to comment for this article, saying they are restricted by federal rules governing public sales. Fewer companies have been going public amid turbulent markets.
Laureate began as Sylvan Learning Systems, a tutoring and test prep company that Becker purchased in 1991. The company’s focus shifted to higher education, and by 2004 it had purchased more than a dozen universities overseas — carving out a relatively untapped market, experts said.
Becker, who grew up in Maryland and made his first million as a teenager, was widely credited with recognizing a demand overseas for nontraditional higher education and growing the company to meet it. By the end of 2015, the for-profit university system boasted enrollment of more than 1 million students in 28 countries. The company employs more than 1,000 in Baltimore.
Headquartered in Harbor East, Laureate is considered an above-average actor in the for-profit education sector by many experts. Graduates of its U.S. schools earn more money and are less likely to default on student loans than the national average, according to U.S. Department of Education data.
As a politically connected businessman, Becker has worked hard to distance Laureate from the controversy that has affected other for-profit college companies. Laureate registered as a “public benefit corporation” last year, which Becker has stressed means it is focused on students as well as on shareholders.
Some faculty who have worked for Laureate defend it. Andres Bernasconi was a professor and then vice rector at Andres Bello University, a Laureate school in Chile, from 2005 to 2012. He acknowledged broad concerns raised about for-profit colleges, but said Andres Bello “was then, and remains, a strong university.”
Becker, who attended the Gilman School and was accepted at Harvard but never went, frequently contributes to political candidates, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. When he took Laureate private in 2007, investors included liberal philanthropist and Democratic donor George Soros, as well as Henry Kravis, who gives significantly to Republicans.
Laureate announced a partnership in 2010 with Bill Clinton. Joint tax returns released by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign show that Bill Clinton was paid $17.6 million over six years to serve as Laureate’s “honorary chairman.” He left the post last April, weeks after Hillary Clinton announced her second presidential campaign.
The arrangement is common for universities, but it nevertheless has drawn attention in this year’s polarizing election.
Specifically, Republicans have raised concerns that while Bill Clinton was receiving his multimillion-dollar salary, an independent federal agency with ties to the State Department awarded millions of dollars in grants to a Baltimore-based nonprofit, the International Youth Foundation, which Becker chairs.
Trump’s campaign alleged in June that Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, “laundered” tens of millions of dollars through Laureate.
The Washington Post and PolitiFact have rated the claim false, and the Trump campaign never provided details to back it up.
The allegations are undercut by several points: First, it was the youth foundation that received the grants in question, not Laureate. Second, while Becker chairs the board of the foundation, he is not compensated in that role, and the foundation has said it did not transfer any money to Laureate.
Finally, the largest grant awarded during Clinton’s tenure at the State Department to the International Youth Foundation was actually approved in 2008, by the Bush administration.
A Clinton Foundation spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Democrats have argued that Trump made the allegations only because Trump University was under considerable scrutiny at the time. Trump University, which offered seminars in real estate investment and was not an accredited school, is the subject of a class-action lawsuit.
“The Trump people are desperately trying to find anything to change the subject,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon, who supports Clinton. “They’re just basically throwing mud on the wall to see if anything sticks — and none of it is.”
But some Republicans have said the arrangement, at the very least, smacked of a coziness between the Clinton family and companies like Laureate. The Baltimore company has donated between $1 million and $5 million to the Clinton Foundation, according to the foundation’s website.
Dozens of House Republicans, led by Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, signed a letter in July asking the FBI to investigate the Clintons’ relationship with Laureate, suggesting it “creates the appearance … [of] a kickback.” Blackburn’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Meanwhile, the for-profit education sector remains under intense pressure.
Some for-profit education companies have buckled. Indiana-based ITT Educational Services declared bankruptcy last month after federal officials barred it from accepting new students with federal loans. Virginia-based Strayer Education has watched its stock price fall more than 80 percent since 2010.
Observers say Washington’s tougher stance follows decades of federal higher-education policy that focused more on ensuring access to college than on monitoring the quality of instruction. That led to a rapid growth in for-profit schools, many of which derive a huge share of their revenue from federal student loan programs.
One of the biggest regulatory changes imposed by the Obama administration required schools to prove their graduates earn enough money to pay off their debt.
“You had people selling false dreams at a high price,” said Ben Miller, a senior director at the left-leaning Center for American Progress and a former education official in the Obama administration. “Now there’s just a lot more people paying attention to this and raising questions, which raises the scrutiny.”
Laureate owns five schools in the U.S., including Minneapolis-based Walden University, which offers online instruction, and Kendall College in Chicago. Those schools have generally received decent marks from federal regulators, but not always.
More than 40 percent of Walden’s graduates who received federal financial aid are making payments on their debt, according to the latest federal data, compared with a national average of 68 percent. And a Brookings Institution study released weeks after the company filed its IPO indicated that Walden students had accumulated $9.8 billion debt, the second-highest amount in the nation.
Of that amount, $6.1 billion was borrowed to pay for expenses at Walden, according to Brookings. The rest was accumulated by Walden students at other schools.
Three of the company’s colleges — Walden, Kendall and the NewSchool of Architecture and Design in San Diego — are on a list of schools that receive heightened financial review by the Department of Education. In Walden’s case, federal officials say the school did not meet deadlines to refund federal loans for students who withdrew from classes.
In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in May, the company said that it is operating under “the least restrictive form” of federal review and that it had complied with requests made by the Education Department.
What’s less clear is how the company is performing overseas, where it operates 87 institutions. Most of Laureate’s students — just under 80 percent — and about half of its revenue come from universities in Latin America, for instance. Most of those nations do not track the same kind of performance measurements as the U.S.
“We actually just don’t really know,” Miller said. “The international holdings are a huge unknown.”
The company and others like it do face pressure from international regulators. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s government, for instance, has tried repeatedly to unwind complicated contractual arrangements that allow Laureate to control universities there despite a ban on for-profit higher education.
“The most important development is the higher-education reform bill, which would prevent Laureate or similar for-profit companies [from controlling] universities,” said Bernasconi, now a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. He added that the pending effort in the Chilean Congress appears to have stalled.
Some observers speculated that Laureate is holding off on its IPO because it is unable to entice investors at the prices it was seeking.
“Uncertainty is going to make investors wary, whether it’s political uncertainty, legal uncertainty,” said Yuval Bar-Or, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. “There’s lots of things that could come up, especially with a corporation that spans most of the globe.”
The number of firms going public has declined generally in recent years, as low interest rates and market volatility make raising money through the markets less attractive.
Laureate brought in $4.3 billion in revenue last year. But the company has more than $4.7 billion in debt, and its losses have accelerated, topping $315 million in 2015, as the dollar fluctuated against other currencies and interest expenses grew.
Company officials have said they hope to use capital raised by the IPO in part to pay down the debt, which it accumulated as it expanded internationally.
Laureate has kept its IPO plans alive by providing updated financial information to the Securities and Exchange Commission, most recently in May. An update is required every nine months, and analysts said the company will need to provide more details soon if it plans to move forward this year.
“They have a very short window,” said Smith, of Renaissance Capital.
A previous version of this article included only the total amount of debt owed by students at Walden University, as reported by the Brookings Institution. The amount of debt accumulated to pay for expenses at Walden alone was $6.1 billion. This figure has been added.