Yesterday Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, released his magnum opus on for-profit colleges, the culmination of two years of excoriating, browbeating, shaming, and generally demagoguing that fast-growing but relatively small sector of American higher education. His report is everything you'd expect from a crusade characterized by an almost complete unwillingness to address the central role of the federal government in creating pervasive rot not just in for-profit higher education, but the entire Ivory Tower.
The for-profit college sector is certainly raking in lots of cash and producing very little for it, with big revenues but very low completion rates. It's probably not as bad as Harkin would have us believe—I've chronicled much of the exaggeration and misrepresentation that has punctuated his attack—but there's little question that lots of students drag heaps of taxpayer dough into for-profit schools and get little of value for it.
The thing is, that happens across higher education, including the profit-taking.
As I've cited ad nauseum, completion rates throughout higher education are abominable. Looking at first-time, full-time students—an imperfect sample, yes, but the best we've got—the top completion rate is for bachelor's students at private not-for-profit schools. But that's only 65.4 percent completing within six years. The worst is at public two-year institutions—community colleges—which see only 20.4 percent finish their programs within 150 percent of normal time. That's just one-in-five!
Surprisingly, Harkin's report mentions the atrocious completion rates at community colleges. But only very briefly, and mainly to assert that "the cost of for-profit programs makes those programs more risky for students and Federal taxpayers." That proviso is technically correct, but as misleading as much of the behavior for which Harkin condemns for-profit schools. Community colleges are cheaper to students in large part because they get direct taxpayer subsidies, and while those don't come mainly from Washington they do come from taxpayers, just at the state and local level. In the 2009-10 school year, state and local appropriations to community colleges totaled $5,412 per pupil. Meanwhile, public four-year schools—with six-year graduation rates of just 56 percent—received almost $8,000 per student in federal, state, and local appropriations. And, of course, all "not-for-profit" schools get favored tax status, paying no taxes on most of their revenue and benefiting from tax deductible largess of donors.
But don't think those schools aren't profiting. Harkin's report blows off the possibility that putatively not-for-profit schools make profits simply by stating that "by definition" such schools "do not retain any revenue as profit." But as Vance Fried illustrated in his 2011 policy analysis, most public and not-for-profit private colleges make thousands of dollars per-undergraduate beyond the cost of educating them. They just use the money to reward the people in the school, or to pay for things that often make the school more bloated, instead of distributing the profits to investors.
Putting the for-profit sector in the context of all of higher education, it's clear the witch hunt has been on. But there's also been major scapegoating: by enabling students to pay for school with other people's money, and with almost no regard for their ability to do college work, it is federal student aid that largely causes the rot in higher ed, quashing both school and student incentives to economize, and student incentives to think critically about consuming higher ed. By demonizing institutions that dare admittedly make profits, politicians like Sen. Harkin shift the blame from where it belongs—themselves—to those who do what the politicians want: "educate" people regardless of their ability. It's exactly like housing: the politicians demand that everyone be able to buy a home, condemn anyone who might fail to furnish the uncreditworthy with mortgages, then blame the lenders when things go horribly wrong. They seem to want the votes—their profits—but no blame when things go south.
Sen. Harkin, the fault for what ails not just for-profit higher education, but the entire Ivory Tower, sits largely with you and your colleagues. Please quit shifting blame and do what must be done: phase out student aid and make all schools earn their money.
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."
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.
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.
What an enigma American higher education is! It produces simultaneously far too many graduates and far too few. It gets hundreds-of-billions in taxpayer subsidies -- subsidies that have almost constantly risen -- and yet its main problem is said to be too little public support.
What interesting questions these problems raise!
Don't, though, ask Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) about any of them. Even though he chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, which has jurisdiction over such huge laws as the Higher Education Act, all he cares about is one thing: slaying for-profit schools. Which is why he has scheduled yet another hearing -- the fifth in a seemingless endless series -- that will focus solely on for-profit institutions, and will almost certainly feature more lopsided testimony, self-serving speechifying, and, if we're really lucky, more apparently dirty dealing masquerading as selfless public service.
Why is Harkin seemingly obsessed with for-profit schools while ignoring the really interesting -- and urgent -- questions about the entire Ivory Tower? Sadly, that is not a great riddle. It is because what ails higher education is Senator Harkin himself, and all the politicians who, for decades, have bought votes with massive aid to schools and students while taking no responsibility for the outrageous price inflation and waste that has fueled. In other words, Sen. Harkin is ignoring the problem because, to deal with it, he'd be the one who'd have to answer the tough questions.
Secret recordings apparently revealing rampant dirty dealing. Big headlines. Taxpayer dollars wrapped up in it all. Surely all this ugliness — even if it turns out that the reality isn't nearly as bad as inital reports make it sound — is coming from the favorite target of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), evil for-profit colleges!
Nope. It's National Public Radio. And I assume Harkin and his pals will give NPR the exact same over-the-coals treatment they've been giving for-profit schools.
OK, I'm probably not able to assume that at all — but I should be.
Because the evidence of wrongdoing and evasion is so clear, and the effect has been so damaging, I have devoted a lot of pixels to the GAO's horrendous "secret shopper" report on for-profit colleges, as well as the stonewalling about what caused the initial report to be so biased. A potentially even bigger story, though, is what appears to be the machinations of an unholy alliance of Department of Education officials, Senate HELP Committee chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA), and Wall Street short-sellers hoping to make big bucks off the demise of for-profit schools. This Daily Caller article, and the connected video of Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), are good places to start learning more about this, as is the website of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
The problems with understanding scandals like this, of course, are trying to get the truth about things that have gone on almost entirely in real or virtual back rooms; knowing what is legal and what isn't; and just figuring out who's who. Such scandals also reveal little about whether for-profit schools are actually more or less effective than other higher ed sectors, arguably the main public policy concern.
What this sort of thing does start to reveal, though, is just how far out of public view policy is often made, as well as how people try to profit directly from government action. In other words, it's a great case study in public-choice theory, and just how un-Schoolhouse Rock Washington really is.
So I can't tell you everything about who said what to whom. However, at the very least it is clear, for instance, that famed short seller Steve Eisman had a huge amount to gain by testifying that for-profits are bad and there is a "bubble" in proprietary higher ed about to burst. After all, were either the Education Department or Senator Harkin -- or both -- to use his testimony to attack for profits, as indeed they have, Eisman would have a highly profitable self-fulfilling prophecy on his hands.
No matter how you feel about for-profit colleges -- and my feelings are decidedly mixed-- learning about how policy is really made can be a very unsettling thing. In fact, it can make you feel more than just a little sick.
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.