"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...