Tag: for-profit colleges

Debate: Colleges Getting Rich Off Students and Taxpayers?

On Tuesday, Cato held a forum on the big profits made by putatively “nonprofit” colleges, the subject of a new Cato Policy Analysis. Not surprisingly, Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, objected to the use of the term “profits” to categorize the excess money colleges take in through undergraduate students, but all the panelists seemed to agree that there is both significant waste in higher ed, and that the Capitol Hill obsession with unabashedly for-profit institutions misses big cracks all over the Ivory Tower.

Unfortunately, of course, many of you couldn’t join us on Tuesday. Thankfully, you can now take in the entire bit of illuminating infotainment right here:

On a related note, give George Leef’s latest commentary a read. He does a nice job of pointing out all the major flaws in perhaps the most politically powerful argument for ever-greater government spending on higher education: because degree-holders tend to earn more, we need oodles more people with degrees. I’ve taken a whack at that dubious argument recently, but George gives it a far more comprehensive treatment.

Truth Is, All of Higher Ed Is Broken

Over at the New America Foundation’s “Higher Ed Watch” blog, Stephen Burd purports to know “the truth behind Senate Republican’s boycott of the Harkin hearing.” And what is that truth? Republicans are trying to “discredit an investigation that has revealed just how much damage their efforts to deregulate the industry over the past decade have caused both students and taxpayers.”

Really?

Okay, it is possible that Republicans are trying to save themselves some sort of blame or embarrasment – I can’t read their minds – but if so they’ve done a terrible job. Every time Harkin holds one of his hearings the bulk of the media coverage treats it like it has revealed shocking abuse by the entire for-profit sector. And don’t forget the damage done by the now-discredited – at least for those wonks who have followed it – GAO “secret shopper” report that was baised against for-profits enough on its own, but Sen. Harkin abused even beyond what the GAO wrote was reasonable.  So Harkin has defintiely gotten his message across, and he certainly hasn’t hidden past Republican efforts to reduce regulatory burdens on for-profit schools.

The fact remains, however, that the whole Ivory Tower – every floor and staircase – is loaded down with luxurious but crushing waste, and the crumbling foundations are being propped up with huge amounts of taxpayer dough and student debt. Not addessing that, as the boycotting Senators have stated, is what has been blaringly wrong with Harkin’s crusade. (Not that I think either party is likely to do what needs to be done: phasing out federal student aid.)

So absolutely, let’s stop forcing taxpayers to prop up the for-profit part of the tower. But let’s also stop pretending that that part isn’t just one rotten level in a much bigger, buckling edifice.

Are Even Dems Getting Tired of Anti-Profit Crusade?

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Yesterday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) held his fifth – and perhaps final – Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee show-hearing lambasting for-profit colleges. As usual, it was a decidedly one-sided affair, with no profit-defenders apparently invited to testify, and Republican committee members boycotting. Perhaps the only interesting thing that occurred was Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), who has never given any indication he doesn’t support Harkin’s obsessive whale hunt, saying the proceedings could have benefitted from more than one point of view. According to MarketWatch, Franken lamented that “it would have been nice to have someone here to represent the for-profit schools.” Now, he might have only wanted a for-profit rep there to receive the beating, but even that would have been preferable to no rep at all.

Could this indicate that even Senate Democrats are getting tired of Harkin’s tedious grandstanding against for-profit colleges, especially now that the Education Department has issued its “gainful employment” rules? Maybe, and there are lots of Dems in the House who have opposed the attack on for-profit schools for some time. But don’t expect this to be over quite yet: Harkin still gets a lot of negative media coverage for proprietary schools with each hearing, while the scandals surrounding people he’s had testify; the decrepit GAO “secret shopper” report that turned out to be hugely inaccurate; and potentially dirty dealings behind the gainful employment rules seem only to get real ink from Fox News and The Daily Caller. And Harkin keeps indicating that he will introduce legislation – doomed to failure though it may be – to curb for-profits even further.

Of course, what should be the biggest source of outrage in all of this is that while Harkin fixates on for-profit schools, Washington just keeps on enabling all of higher education to luxuriate in ever-pricier, taxpayer-funded opulence. Indeed, as a new Cato report due out next week will show, putatively nonprofit universities are likely making bigger profits on undergraduate students than are for-profit institutions. Of course, they don’t call them “profits” – nonprofits always spend excess funds, thus increasing their “costs” – but that’s probably just plain smart. Be honest about trying to make a buck, and Sen. Harkin has shown just what’s likely to befall you.

‘Gainful Employment’ Regs Softened, Still a Diversionary Sideshow

The hotly anticipated – and dreaded – “gainful employment” regulations aimed at for-profit colleges were released this morning, and based on media reports the big news is that they are a little more lenient than originally expected. Most importantly, schools that fail to meet debt-to-income and debt-repayment requirements will not be cut off from federal student aid – the financial crack on which almost every college and university depends – until 2015.

That’s the big news, at least as reported. But it isn’t the important story.

The real story remains that the Obama administration, and at least the education leadership in the Senate, continues to divert the public’s eye towards for-profit schools when the entire higher education system is a waste-engorged, parasitic mess.

Yes, for-profit schools have low program completion rates, but the overall six-year completion rate for four-year programs is just around 57 percent. And yes, for-profit schools leave many students with big debt, but the average debt for all four-year undergraduate students who have taken loans is around $24,000. And yes, students at for-profit institutions draw heavily on the public treasury to pay for the studies they don’t complete, but higher education overall is a gigantic leech feeding off  taxpayers, taking in hundreds of billions of dollars every year from all levels of government. And it is ever-growing aid to students from vote-hungry federal politicians that is likely the most potent force enabling rampant price inflation and massive college overconsumption. After all, the price becomes a lot less important – and extravagances more enticing – when someone else is footing much of the bill.

Now that these rules have been published, let’s move on to what really needs to happen: Phasing out government subsidies for the entire draining Ivory Tower.

Keep Moving, There’s Still Nothing to See Here

In dribs and drabs the plot thickens in the quiet little saga surrounding the GAO’s brutal and broken August report on for-profit colleges. The latest development is the near-silent transformation of the GAO office that produced the knee-capping report that was later quietly reissued with lots of new, for-profit-exonerating material.

I say “near-silent transformation” because word about it somehow got to the Coalition for Educational Success, a career college advocacy group.  Yesterday, CES issued a press release on the matter, and this morning I contacted GAO’s public affairs office about it. To the GAO’s credit, their public affairs folks quickly sent me a copy of a memo announcing the end of the Forensic Audits and Special Investigations (FSI) team. Sadly, it was clear that there would be no public announcement of the change, which is utterly consistent with the behind-your-back way GAO has handled every development in this story. Well, every development save the very public release of the original, fatally flawed report.

Especially concerning is the following passage in the memo, which suggests that the for-profit college report provided the ultimate impetus for giving the FSI a new identity. This despite the FSI having done investigations in numerous other areas:

Since the Forensic Audits and Special Investigations team was formed in 2005 the team’s body of work has resulted in numerous accomplishments and benefits to the Congress and the public. To ensure good work continues and to bring greater management attention to the group and more seamlessly integrate its work with GAO’s program teams as well as the audit and investigative sides of the unit, today I am announcing several changes. These enhancements will also ensure greater attention to the issues that led to the need to produce the errata to the for-profit schools report and by the subsequent inspection.

So why does the group need “greater management attention”? And what exactly are “the issues that led to the need to produce the errata” to the August report?

As a member of the public it sure would be nice to know the answers to these questions, especially since these are the guys who are supposed to be holding the rest of the federal government ”accountable.” For proprietary schools’ employees and investors — the people who were most hurt by the dubious August report — these are thing they absolutely should know. But the GAO insists on telling us that nothing major went wrong while refusing to share information we’d need to confirm that. It’s not only totally unsatisfactory, it only makes you even more suspicious.

For-profits Fighting Back, Harkin to Flog-on

Last week, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Comittee, announced that on February 17 he will continue his obssessive attack on for-profit colleges, holding yet another hearing to determine just how evil profit-seekers are.  At least, that is what will presumably be discussed — the specific subject of the hearing is yet to be identified. But the committee actually tackling, say, rampant waste throughout higher education driven by federal student aid, or just giving for-profit schools an even-handed treatment, would be too huge a turnaround to contemplate.

Despite there being no end in sight to Harkin’s seige, for-profit institutions aren’t just rolling over, and today they launched their latest counterattack. This afternoon the Coalition for Educational Success — a for-profit college advocacy group — filed a lawsuit against the Government Accountability Office. At issue: The GAO’s ”secret shopper” report on for-profit institutions that was eventually — but very stealthily — revealed by the GAO to be riddled with errors, and which could be shown to be an even bigger smear job were the GAO to allow for-profit schools to examine the evidence behind the report. 

Clearly there will be more to come on this, if for no other reason than Harkin’s show-hearings have garnered a lot of coverage in the past. Hopefully, this time potentially disturbing behavior by the GAO, as well as the huge problems federal policy has created throughout higher education — you know, the really important stories — will also get a little attention.

Dear Defamed: Trust Us, We’re the Government

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.