The serene world of higher education looks distinctly different when viewed from Capitol Hill.
There, traditional, nonprofit universities such as Penn State and Virginia Commonwealth University are fighting furiously against for-profit colleges such as Strayer University and the Culinary Institute of America.
The more-established schools want to block legislation that would, among other things, make it easier for students to transfer academic credits to the traditional schools from the fast-growing upstarts.
The debate has not always been genteel.
In a letter to lawmakers, the American Council on Education (ACE), most of whose members are traditional schools, called the credit-transfer proposal "objectionable," "intrusive" and "exceptionally expensive to implement." The nonprofit colleges worry that their academic standards -- of which they're so proud -- might be threatened.
In response, Chairman John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) of the House Education and Workforce Committee warned that ACE's position illustrated "a growing disconnect between the priorities of the lobbying community and those of parents, students and taxpayers, who are increasingly concerned about the condition of U.S. higher education."
This is more than a run-of-the-mill spat. It is a classic of its kind: a pitched lobbying battle on a matter about which few people realize there's any lobbying at all.
The stakes are high for millions of Americans. The personal views -- and fragile egos -- of obscure yet powerful lawmakers are pivotal. And the influence of campaign cash could be important to the outcome.
The first lesson here is that the most important lobbying almost never appears on the front page. Surprisingly significant changes in law occur on the margins of the legislative process and out of public view. That's where lobbyists are most active. So it is with the credit-transfer cul-de-sac.
The brawl involves House Bill 4283, the College Access and Opportunity Act, a measure that is virtually unknown to most people yet is central to the education of our children. It would reauthorize and expand the Higher Education Act, which governs the $70 billion in subsidies that the federal government gives postsecondary schools each year and sets the parameters for how colleges deal with student aid and the feds.
At this stage, neither students nor their parents are paying much attention. But colleges certainly are. Universities are among Washington's most active lobbyists. There are at least 50 educational organizations, as varied as the National Association of Schools of Dance and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. In addition, lots of individual institutions maintain lobbying offices here, the biggest of which is the University of California, which has 12 employees in downtown D.C. Dozens of schools retain contract lobbyists.
"There's a virtual armada of professional educational lobbyists who, more often than not, move in lock step to preserve the status quo," says David Schnittger, spokesman for the House education committee.
The traditional colleges don't see things that way. They assert that they have plenty of good reasons to lobby. For one thing, an ever-larger share of their budgets comes from Uncle Sam. For another, they say, they have to work overtime to keep government interference in college matters to a minimum and to preserve the high academic standards that, though subjective, are at the heart of what they do.
The pending legislation's credit-transfer provisions, for example, would be so onerous and meddlesome that a national database would need to be established to keep track of it all, says Terry W. Hartle, chief lobbyist for ACE.
But the education world is divided on the issue. Bruce D. Leftwich, the top lobbyist for the Career College Association, which represents for-profit schools (including The Washington Post Co.'s Kaplan Inc.), disagrees. His view is simple and straightforward. "English 101 is English 101," and credit for passing the course should be allowed to travel anywhere, he says.
He acknowledges that the nonprofits view his institutions as second-rate but says, "They've been wrong before." And clearly, the more credits students bring with them to a traditional school, the fewer they will need to pay for to reach graduation.
Each side has a legitimate case. But ACE committed a fundamental error that's hindering its ability to make its opinion heard. It violated the first rule of lobbying: Don't anger the chairman. When it expressed its views -- at great length and in stark language -- to Boehner and his subcommittee chairman, Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), it irritated both little-known but extremely influential men.
Boehner says he's peeved at the traditional schools.
"There are a lot of things they want and we're looking to do all those things. But there are a few issues they've come unglued over, such as the transfer-of-credit issue. They look to me like a group of people who are used to getting their way all the time and aren't used to sitting at the table working things out. It strikes me as amateur hour."
Hartle denies he's being obstinate and asserts that talk of a conflict between the traditionals and the for-profits is overblown. Of his tiff with the Boehner and McKeon, he says: "I'm terribly sorry and disappointed if we angered them. That wasn't our goal or intention."
Hartle's colleagues in the traditional-college world aren't as politic about the tactics of their for-profit rivals. In particular, they grouse often about the sizable campaign donations that the for-profit colleges throw around.
Hartle acknowledges that ACE's nonprofit members are at a disadvantage when it comes to playing the Washington game. Why? Traditional universities don't contribute money to politicians in any organized way.
The for-profit schools, in contrast, have become expert at that method of access buying, apparently to great effect.
A study by the Chronicle of Higher Education this summer found that the political action committees of for-profit schools have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the members of the House education committee. Their gifts, second in size only to those from companies that deal in student loans, were focused on Boehner and McKeon.
The lawmakers deny that they were swayed in any manner by campaign contributions. Boehner says the for-profit colleges deserve extra attention because, unlike the traditionals, they are expanding to meet the growing needs of a diverse array of post-secondary students. The result, he says, is a policy "tug of war" that's very different from the universities' laid-back image.
So much for the ivory tower of academia.
Jeffrey H. Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address is email@example.com.