January 13, 2011 2:22PM

Dear Defamed: Trust Us, We’re the Government

Media Name: 201101_blog_mccluskey131.gif

With the release of a new report analyzing a quietly amended Government Accountability Office study that’s been used to club for‐​profit colleges, fear of GAO bias has reached a fever pitch. Sadly, the GAO’s response to the report does anything but assuage that fear.

To get a decent sense for the government abuse both surrounding, and possibly perpetrated by, the GAO study in question, it’s worth a quick rehash of events.

Basically, the study was requested by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee who has been waging war against for‐​profit colleges on the suspicion that the sector is rife with fraud, waste, and abuse. To get data to support his suspicion, Harkin asked the GAO to conduct “secret shopper” research in which investigators pretending to be prospective students visit schools to discover fraudulent admissions and financial aid practices.

In August 2010 the GAO released selected findings in testimony to Harkin’s committee and an accompanying report. The GAO said that it found abuses in all the schools it visited, which Harkin and others suspicious of profit‐​seekers seized on to assert that the sector is, indeed, teeming with fraud. That the GAO’s report explicitly noted that the sample of schools it visited was non‐​random and, therefore, its results impossible to apply to all of for‐​profit higher education was no matter: the rhetoric of those with a bias against for‐​profit schools was off and running.

In November, while for‐​profit schools sought unsuccessfully to get all the recorded and other material needed to substantiate the GAO’s findings, the GAO silently slipped a revised version of the report out, one that featured numerous changes, all of which redounded to for‐​profits’ favor. And it wasn’t just correcting minor oversights: There was lots of recorded dialogue that had been missing from the original report, material that the GAO must have known about before issuing it’s initial, very damaging report.

Which brings us to the present day, and the new report that tears apart the amended version of the GAO study. Using available audio recordings of the shoppers’ visits — and many recordings and other evidence is not available, being held by the GAO and U.S. Department of Education — investigators from the firm of Norton/​Norris, Inc., commissioned by the Coalition for Educational Success, report that only a quarter of the GAO’s findings can be substantiated after factoring out missing recordings. In other words, an already crumbling report seems to be utterly collapsing.

So is the GAO apologizing for this, or at least saying they’ll make all their material available? No way, as their statement to Inside Higher Ed makes clear:

“The consultants hired by the Coalition to discredit the report never contacted GAO for explanations and failed to take into account many factors, including the fact that not all information in the report can be found on the audio tapes posted to the Internet,” Chuck Young, GAO’s managing director for public affairs, said in an e‐​mailed statement. “For example, GAO turned over some videotapes to the inspector general at the Department of Education due to evidence of serious wrongdoing uncovered by investigators. Audio from those visits was not able to be posted. There were also written materials that were examined as part of the work and are not on the tapes. We are reviewing the tapes to see if there were any segments that were not provided to the committee.

“But the bottom line remains that a GAO review team independent from the investigators who did this work examined the report and found no material flaws in the evidentiary support for the overall message of the testimony and consequently our findings did not change. We did issue the errata at their suggestion to clarify our work and provide more precise language. We continue to stand by the overall message of this report.”

You don’t have to suffer from tinfoil‐​hat paranoia to see real and potential government abuse all over this sorry episode. First, opportunist politicians and others misused the initial GAO report to smear the whole for‐​profit sector. Then, once the damage was done, the GAO made significant changes to their report without even so much as issuing a press release. And now, as even the amended report is being ripped to shreds, the GAO’s response is basically “you can’t have access to the evidence being used against you, and you don’t need it: We’ve already decided we’re right and you’re wrong.”

Now, are for‐​profit schools pure and blameless? Absolutely not: Norton/​Norris confirmed several of the GAO’s findings, and some findings they questioned are probably accurate. Moreoever, as I’ve pointed out before, many for‐​profit schools are happy to take students carrying taxpayer dollars despite knowing there’s little chance that those students will ever finish their studies. Of course, that makes those institutions no different from many public and nonprofit private schools about which Sen. Harkin evinces no concern. 

Ultimately, though, much more important than the immediate effect of all of this on for‐​profit schools is the lesson it offers for all Americans: Run afoul of the sensibilities of the wrong politicians — especially if you make a deal with the devil and take government funds — and government can hobble you without ever worrying about due process, transparency, or just plain fairness. All it has to do is make accusations.