After a series of congressional hearings lambasting for-profit higher education, Sen. Tom Harkin has released a 249-page report hitting high dropout rates and spending on marketing, recruiting and distributing profits to shareholders.
The industry’s trade group, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, charged the report “twists the facts to fit a narrative, and misstates the graduation rate at two-year for-profit colleges.
In a dissent, Republican staff members also questioned the report’s accuracy and fairness.
The report’s call for tighter regulation is unlikely to get far in an election year, predicts Inside Higher Ed.
The report calls for tighter rules governing for-profits in several areas. Those include more data collection on student performance by the U.S. Department of Education, the tying of federal aid to minimum student outcomes, lowering of the 90/10 threshold to 85 percent and the creation of an online student complaint clearinghouse.
In the absence of “significant reforms,” the report said the “sector will continue to turn out hundreds of thousands of students with debt but no degree.”
Better data on student performance surely is a good thing, but tying federal aid to student outcomes poses a threat to all open-access colleges and universities. Success rates are lower at community colleges than at two-year for-profit colleges. Historically black colleges and universities also would be threatened by linking aid to outcomes.
The report includes profiles of 30 for-profit companies detailing charges of “student recruiting, substandard academic offerings, high tuition and executive compensation, low student retention rates and the issuance of credentials of questionable value.” The report compares tuition at for-profit colleges to community colleges, state universities and private non-profit alternatives in the area. Not surprisingly, taxpayer-subsidized institutions charge less tuition than for-profit colleges.
Harkin’s tone during the investigation has been fiercely critical, so the inclusion of a few conciliatory notes in the report may be a surprise to some observers. It notes that the sector will continue to play an important role in higher education, in part because nonprofit colleges lack the capacity to serve growing demand
For-profits should be well-equipped to serve nontraditional students, at least “in theory,” the report said. “They offer the convenience of nearby campus and online locations, a structured approach to coursework and the flexibility to stop and start classes quickly and easily. These innovations have made attending college a viable option for many working adults, and have proven successful for hundreds of thousands of people who might not otherwise have obtained degrees.”
For-profit college executives’ pay is linked to profits, not to student success, complains Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Maryland, who released preliminary findings of his inquiry into 13 publicly traded higher-education companies last week.