Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

Newsworthy Opportunistic Inquiries?

by , Columnist , Free Liberal

Why are the nation’s public and private “Non-profit Axis” and their grandstanding politician allies so disdainful of the for-profit higher education sector? I suggest that they have vastly different reasons for their animosity towards the for-profit sector. Yet they appear to be bound together in an unspoken “your enemy is my enemy” alliance. In my last rant, I suggested that the Non-profit Axis, public and private post-secondary institutions, were responding, perhaps unconsciously, to their incremental loss of market share in recent years.

Rather than using a little introspection—acknowledging that they missed promising market opportunities to serve new customers, the sanctimonious non-profits appear to have found a guilt-free external explanation. They have cried foul citing the findings of the GAO’s undercover/secret shopper investigations of some for-profit campuses.

The GAO’s published findings report that a relatively small number, only 15, for-profit campuses were actually visited and appeared to have been engaging in deceptive or questionable recruitment practices. The Axis has projected a desire to paint the entire for-profit sector as deceitful in garnering its increasing market share. It appears far easier to blame the adversary, who happen to be the smallest segment of the higher education community, than to acknowledge that growing numbers of potential students are not well served by the Axis’ inflexibility in addressing their specific educational needs. .

Now let us look at the knee jerk response from our elected officials. The investigators’ report has prompted opportunistic Washington Congressional inquiries. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee’s chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA), to call two hearings on “For-Profit Schools: The Student Recruitment Experience.” These hearings of course led to media coverage demonstrating our Congress hard at work, albeit on an ephemeral issue.

Is this reminiscent of an old joke?

To prolong the coverage, Chairman Harkin has subsequently requested admission records and recruitment training materials from 30 companies operating for-profit schools. The process will undoubtedly lead to a continuing stream of media coverage at least up to the mid-term elections. This coverage will continue to project the illusion that the Congressional leadership is actually doing something about the nation’s array of higher education challenges.

Unfortunately, far more complex issues, such as decades of escalating tuition and fees, mounting student debt, and academic programs leading to limited employment opportunities lack the panache to sustain media coverage. These issues are endemic throughout the entire American higher education community. Hindsight 20/20 from Minnesota has got it right:

Instead of allowing some for-profit colleges’ flaws to distract the education debate, let’s invest in and better promote our state-funded resources to grow a new generation of highly-skilled workers, without burdensome debt loads.

Good advice for Washington as well.

A Congressional investigation of the entire American higher education sector may be too embarrassing for both the Axis and it political allies. Even though the glut of unemployed law school and public relations graduates suggest the deceptive and questionable practices are afoot within the Axis, the for profits provide an easy target for at least two reasons. As the smallest segment of the American higher education sector, they have relatively few alumni and other supporters in the general population. Fewer oxen will be gored.


William Patrick Leonard is Vice Dean of Academic and Student Services at the Solbridge International School of Business in Daejeon, Korea. He is Advisor on Higher Education Policy at the Rio Grande Foundation.