What Part of “Nonrepresentative” Don’t Profit-Haters Get?

For the last few days, for-profit colleges and universities have been suffering an even worse hammering than usual, both in the media and their pocketbooks. The proximate cause: a GAO report released Wednesday that has been portrayed as revealing “systemic” and “pervasive” fraud — and otherwise just seamy behavior — by the for-profit sector.

No doubt there is some bad stuff going on in proprietary postsecondary education. But the assault on for-profits reeks of political bullying of the unpopular kid — the kid who’s just different — as well as the never-ending Washington demonization of anyone who honestly pursues a profit. The waving of the bloody GAO report is case-in-point, and one need look no further than the following statement contained on the report’s very first page:

Results of the undercover tests and tuition comparisons cannot be projected to all for-profit colleges.

You mean, GAO investigators went to 15 non-randomly selected schools in six states and Washington, DC, and the results cannot be construed to be representative of the whole sector? And the GAO also, apparently, meant it when it wrote on page two of the report that “we investigated a nonrepresentative selection” of schools? But, then, how could Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, have stated in a show-trial hearing that “GAO’s findings make it disturbingly clear that abuses in for-profit recruiting are not limited to a few rogue recruiters or even a few schools with lax oversight”?

Oh, right: Truth doesn’t matter to Harkin — only scoring political points. That not only explains how Harkin could say such a thing, but why he has targeted for-profits rather than seeking truth and purity in all sectors of higher education, including the coolest of the cool kids, public colleges. With dismal program completion rates of their own, and their imposition of huge burdens on taxpayers, you’d think they’d be worth some investigating, too.

I encourage you to read the GAO report, and you’ll see that it in no way supports a blanket condemnation of for-profit higher ed. And it’s not just because its findings can in no reasonable way be extrapolated to the whole of proprietary schooling. It’s also because many of the supposedly terrible things it discovers, while perhaps distasteful, are hardly abhorent, such as telling prospective students that they ”can” — not “will” — earn a lot of money in a profession even if that amount is well above the average. And then there’s the report’s worthless comparisons of tuition at for-profit and nearby public instituions. Once again: public colleges are heavily subsidized by taxpayers, so of course their tuition is lower. And these comparisons were also not randomly selected.

After you’ve read the GAO report, you should take in a new paper from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, For-Profit Higher Education: Growth, Innovation and Regulation. It might be a bit too fond of the for-profit sector, which like all of higher education lives far too much off the sweat of taxpayers, but it furnishes lots of terrific data and insights about proprietary higher ed to balance out the ongoing truth-eschewing assaults the sector keeps on suffering.