Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Fight Turns Nasty

The last several blogs have been about the scrutiny - primarily from the Obama Administration and Democrats on Capitol Hill - of for profit higher education. Damaging allegations from the GAO's "secret shopper" tapes made it difficult to argue that it was a case of "just a few bad actors." But the for-profit sector is fighting back. Millions of dollars are being spent on various lobbying campaigns and the effort was successful in delaying the proposed "gainful employment" rules from the US Department of Education.

Then, just the day before the historic (and first-ever) White House Summit on Community Colleges, a report was issued claiming that community colleges engage in "unsavory recruitment practices" and offer students "poorer-than-expected academic quality, course availability, class scheduling, job placement and personal attention." The firm that produced this report (on behalf of several for-profit companies) did some of their own "secret shopping." But the value of this "research" seemed highly questionable. The sample of students surveyed, for example, was composed of people who had withdrawn or graduated from community colleges and then enrolled in a for-profit institution. The authors of the report acknowledged this might mean that "bias may be present" (!).

On another front, Inside Higher Education reported that for-profit Keiser University filed a lawsuit against Florida State College at Jacksonville, complaining that college administrators "disseminated false information about proprietary schools, including Keiser, by working through advocacy groups and 'short sellers' who profit when the price of a publicly traded stock declines in value."

There's no question that community colleges have their own set of problems, especially in these economic times of severe budget cutting. But for-profit and non-profit alike need to do a better job of improving graduation rates and helping their "non-traditional" students to succeed.

Imagine if all the money that is being spent on lobbying and litigation went, instead, to program improvement? But, of course, that's not the way our system works, especially in these highly polarized times. We just have to hope that the students who need these programs if they ever are going to have a shot at a better life, are not "collateral damage" in these ongoing battles.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Collateral Damage

I took a call last week from a potential student searching for a medical assisting program. Of course, that isn't news - the CAAHEP office takes dozens of such calls every week. But this call was different in several respects. First of all, the young woman knew what she was looking for and was asking all the right questions. Secondly, she was asking these questions BEFORE she enrolled or took out a dollar in student loans. And perhaps most surprisingly, the program she wanted to attend was, in fact, CAAHEP-accredited.

So, what was her problem? The program is at a "technical school" and she had been hearing so many bad things about "technical schools," she just didn't trust her own judgment (or CAAHEP's) about this particular program. The institution in question is not part of a large national chain but it does have multiple campuses. We have no record of ever having received a complaint against this particular school (or any of its other campuses). But it's a "technical school" and nothing I said seemed to assuage her anxiety.

This is why I chose the title "Collateral Damage" for this blog entry. While the battle over for-profit higher education rages on Capitol Hill and in the media, there are a lot of conscientious, good-quality institutions that are suffering from the "fallout."

But, or course, this does not make the real problems any less severe. For the first time ever, as of June 2010, student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt. And while credit card debt can be erased in bankruptcy, student loan debt will follow a person throught his or her life (including possible garnishment of Social Security benefits).

The for-profit higher education industry have been vehemently fighting efforts by the Department of Education to impose "gainful employment" requirements (just as some of their opponents have been working in support of the draft rules). Recent stories have reported the huge amounts spent lobbying against these efforts and the organized letter writing campaigns that resulted in more than 80,000 comments filed with the Department both for and against the proposed rule. Meantime, Senator Harkin has announced another hearing by the Senate HELP Committee to be held on September 30th. This hearing is expected to focus on student outcomes and debt. Undoubtedly there will be more bombshells -- and more collateral damage.

To watch the hearing via webcast at 10:00 am Eastern time on September 30th , you can go to:

Thursday, August 12, 2010

More than a few "Bad Actors"

"This week the world changed." That was the quote attributed to Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education following the most recent Senate hearing. Here's what happened.

As promised, Senator Tom Harkin (D, IA) held another hearing on the subject of for-profit higher education. But this time the first witness was an investigator from the Government Accountability Office who testified about the GAO's "secret shopper" efforts - and he brought video clips. The GAO Report begins with this finding:

"Undercover tests at 15 for-profit colleges found that 4 colleges encouraged fraudulent practices and that all 15 made deceptive or otherwise questionable statements to GAO’s undercover applicants. Four undercover applicants were encouraged by college personnel to falsify their financial aid forms to qualify for federal aid—for example, one admissions representative told an applicant to fraudulently remove $250,000 in savings. Other college representatives exaggerated undercover applicants’ potential salary after graduation and failed to provide clear information about the college’s program duration, costs, or graduation rate despite federal regulations requiring them to do so."

There was no more talk about "a few bad actors." Even the strongest defenders of the for-profit higher education industry had to acknowledge that there are serious problems.  Harris Miller, president of the Career College Association characterized the GAO's findings as "a wake-up call" both for him and for his members.

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the hearing for those of us who are involved in accreditation came from the hostile questions from Senator Harkin as well as Senator Al Franken (D, MN), directed at Michale McComis, Executive Director, Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, a national accrediting body that accredits for-profits (including some of the 15 that were included in the GAO Report). The Senators questioned how the agency could not have known about the recruiting practices and why those schools were able to meet what the accreditor said were rigorous standards. Senator Harkin was disturbed to learn that the accrediting agency is funded through fees collected from the institutions they accredit. That seemed like a conflict of interest to him and he said "we'll have to look into that." Alas, that is pretty much the way every accrediting body is funded and the thought of Congress "looking into that" is pretty scary. Likewise, he seemed distressed at the idea that the site visits are done by volunteers (peers). That, of course, is the very foundation for our system of "peer review."

Senator Harkin has said he will hold more hearings throughout the fall and in the meantime he has asked for specific information on finances, recruitment, retention and cost at the 15 institutions named in the GAO Report. Republicans on the Committee continue to insist that any examination of recruitment, cost, student loan debt loads, etc., must also include non-profit and public colleges and universities, thus assuring that the entire world of higher education needs to pay attention to what is unfolding in Washington. As usual, stay tuned...

Friday, June 25, 2010

Senate Committee Looks at For-Profit Education

“The lunatics are running the asylum.”
That startling accusation from Wall Street hedge fund manager Steven Eisman was just one of the troubling statements made during a hearing on June 24th held by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP).

There’s no question that the problems in the for-profit sector of higher education are very real. But the hearing had the feel of a “witch hunt” with the witness list stacked heavily with outspoken critics.

Clearly the most critical of the critics was Mr. Eisman and that statement about who’s running the asylum was his assessment of the national accrediting agencies that accredit for-profit institutions. He makes that statement because the boards of those agencies are composed of people from the very for-profits they accredit. But alas, that is the very nature of “peer review” and much the same thing could be said about any accrediting agency.

Although there was very little mention of specialized or programmatic accreditation, and what was said showed that there was lots of confusion about it, there were two specific examples that reflected what we in the CAAHEP office see as the major problem (not necessarily limited to for-profits but certainly disproportionately seen among those institutions).
One of the witnesses was a single mother who borrowed heavily to go to a diagnostic medical sonography program which turned out not to be accredited. She has been trying for over two years to find a job but because she cannot get certified she is unemployable. She did not allege that anyone lied to her about accreditation, they just failed to mention it and she never asked. Mr. Eisman had another example of a medical assisting program in California that was not accredited so that graduates could not get certified.

This is the very real problem which we see every day – in fact, even as the hearing was going on we had a call from a student in that same situation! How do we stop the institutions from misleading potential students? I’m afraid that any effort by Congress to get at the problem will end up hurting all of higher education. The ranking Republican on the Committee, Sentaor Michael Enzi (R, WY) may have stated it best:

“Unfortunately, as in other industries, there are bad actors in the for-profit sector. Some for-profit schools have attempted to game the system in order to gain access to more federal aid dollars … . .That is unacceptable … However, in combating this behavior, it is essential that we use a scalpel and not a machete. Whatever protections are put in place must eliminate bad actors and ensure that we do not unintentionally harm students in legitimate programs.”

Senator Harkin (D, IA) has promised more hearings to come so stay tuned…

Friday, June 11, 2010

Criticism of For Profit Higher Education

It’s been a rough few weeks for the for-profit sector of higher education. Critical articles have appeared everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to Good Housekeeping magazine. The U.S. Department of Education is trying to figure out how to craft regulations that will somehow tie the prospect of “gainful employment” to eligibility for federal student loans. One Wall Street trader compared the for-profit higher education sector to the subprime mortgage lenders and predicted that defaults on student loans could be the next “foreclosure” crisis.

There’s no question that aggressive recruiters and unscrupulous providers are out there making promises they cannot keep to “non-traditional” students who are vulnerable and hoping for a better life through a new career. But all the “bad apples” unfortunately tarnish many other for-profit schools that are, in fact, serving underserved populations and providing a quality education in the process.

So how can a potential student protect him or herself?

If the admissions person/recruiter  is pressing too hard, claiming that you MUST make the decision on the spot, making promises that sound too good to be true about high paying careers in just 6 or 9 months  – “buyer beware”! This is a case where you need to do your homework BEFORE you get to class. If you are hoping to enter a new career, do you know what the certification and/or licensure requirements are in order to work in that field?

Here’s where the confusing topic of accreditation comes in. For many professions, it is not enough that the school be accredited. The program itself, such as the diagnostic medical sonography (ultrasound) program or the surgical technology program, must also be accredited in order for you to be eligible upon graduation to sit for the certification exam. There may be “loopholes” to these requirements – alternate ways to be eligible for certification. But don’t rely solely on the word of that “salesman” who wants you to sign on the dotted line for your information.

Be informed, go in armed with the facts and you won’t end up being victimized.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Why is Accreditation Important?

Read what people are saying:

“I am a firm believer in program accreditation, and believe CAAHEP has done a wonderful job in setting standards that improve the educational process. I was CONVINCED my program was good before accreditation, but didn't have a means of proving it. Going through the self-study(ies), the site visit(s), and the review process I have been able to identify and correct our program’s weaknesses.... The entire process has allowed me to create a program that can stand toe to toe with any other program in the country as an equal. I understand some people take accreditation as a necessary evil - demanded by their institution or their industry - but to me it is a day-to-day challenge of what can I do better to improve my program in the future.”
- Jeff McDonald, Program Director, Emergency Medical Technician Paramedic, Tarrant Community College, Hurst, TX

"CAAHEP accreditation allows our graduates to sit for their credentialing exam immediately after finishing their program, which is advantageous to their employment pursuit.  In addition, the employer knows that they are getting the best of the best when hiring a graduate from a CAAHEP accredited program."
- Ibrahim Daoud, BS, RPSGT, Polysomnography Program Director, Central Florida Institute

"Accreditation offers assurance to our students and our community that our program is the highest quality program that will best prepare students to be entry level medical assistants. And - most importantly - it allows our students to be able to sit for the CMA exam!"
- Dee Kinney, MA, RD, CMA (AAMA), Program Director - Medical Assisting, University of Cincinnati - Clermont College