Applying a steady hand as 'private-sector' colleges face scrutiny
Daniel Hamburger is quick to whip out his business card.

One side of the card is standard — white background, corporate logo, contact information for the headquarters in Downers Grove.

The flip side is dramatic, painted ripe-tomato red with white letters. It spells out the company's mission, which not only reflects the DeVry Inc. CEO's keen interest in corporate leadership philosophy, and buzzwords, but, he says, represents the guideposts he has used to navigate the most tumultuous period in the for-profit education company's eight-decade history.

Business cards and Hamburger's calm demeanor belie recent turmoil in the for-profit education business. It has been a manic era of tremendous prosperity slammed to a halt with a sudden, brutal onslaught of negative publicity and government scrutiny.

As recently as 2010, DeVry enjoyed rocketing enrollments and plush profits. Since then? Stock-price plummets, from more than $70 a share in 2010 to $25.62 on Friday, and rampant layoffs — it said in July it would eliminate 570 jobs, or more than 5 percent of its staff. Meanwhile, the whole for-profit industry had to endure scrutiny by the Department of Education, Congress, consumer groups and the media.

The worst accusations allege that such colleges use strong-arm tactics to recruit poor people and veterans and then provide an inferior education while charging too much, saddling students with debt and wasting taxpayer money on loans the students can never repay.

But even the harshest critics concede that's not the case at all for-profit colleges and that such schools have a role to play in retraining America's workforce for the types of jobs available today.

Hamburger has positioned himself in the crossfire.

In 2011, he took a leadership role in testifying before a Senate committee investigating the alleged sins of private-sector colleges. He has bucked his industry's view, saying schools' eligibility for federal funding should depend on how well they graduate students and place them in jobs without sinking them in crushing debt.

Hamburger said he's not afraid of being measured by whether DeVry students get jobs in their fields of study, a controversial concept in the industry called "gainful employment" that DeVry has been reporting since 1975.

"We did it before it was cool," he said. The goal is 90 percent placement at DeVry, although it has fallen short of that in recent years.

As for serious allegations against other for-profit schools?

"If there are bad acts or bad actors in the private sector or the public sector, they need to be held accountable, including shutting them down," Hamburger said. Last year, Career Education Corp., a Schaumburg-based for-profit college chain, admitted some of its schools cooked the books on student job-placement rates, and its CEO resigned in the wake of the scandal in 2011.

All this tumult has come amid a frail economy and tepid employment market in which the perceived link was broken between investing in more schooling and getting a better job — the main selling point for a career-oriented school. Hamburger says the economy, not the damaged reputations of private-sector colleges, is mostly to blame for the recent financial problems of DeVry and its competitors.

Through the industry's whiplash of fortune, Hamburger has been a steady hand at DeVry, colleagues and industry watchers say.

The key, the 49-year-old Hamburger insists, has been committing to the credo on his business card, which, simplified, calls for doing what's right for DeVry students, regardless of what's going on in the media or Washington or on Wall Street. 

All good things for DeVry, including a return to higher profits, will flow from that, he says.

"People believe Daniel because they know he tells the truth, and in a way that can be understood by the audience," said Lyle Logan, executive vice president of Northern Trust Co. and a DeVry board member. 

When Hamburger was honored in December with an award by the Anti-Defamation League at a Chicago banquet, it was Logan who stood at the podium and introduced him. He said Hamburger, with his strong analytical skills and integrity, has been well-suited to dealing with the challenges of the private-sector college business in recent years.