Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Bomb That Failed to Explode: Why Didn't the Senate Report on For-Profit Colleges Provoke Public Outrage?

Senator Tom Harkin
In July 2012, an important U.S. Senate Committee, chaired by Senator Tom Harkin from Iowa, issued a lengthy report on for-profit colleges and universities.  This report examined records of 30 for-profit institutions that enrolled a total of 1.1 million students and found enormous problems in the for-profit sector of higher education.

Among the report's startling revelations, were the following:
  • High costs. The average cost of associate degrees from the 30 for-profit colleges it examined was four times higher than the cost of receiving a comparable degree from a community college. (p. 41)
  • Poor student outcomes. According to the report, most students who enrolled in these institutions "do not graduate."  Of 1.1 million students enrolled in 2008 and 2009, almost 600,000 had withdrawn from their studies by 2010. (p. 17)
  • Inordinate appropriation of taxpayer resources. Although for-profit institutions only enroll about 10-13 percent of higher education students, they receive about a quarter of federal student aid money. (p. 19)
  • High default rates. Although the Department of Education reported recently  that almost 20 percent of students who attended for-profit institutions defaulted within three years after beginning the repayment phase, it estimates that 46 percent of students who borrowed money to attend for-profit institutions will eventually default on their loans. (p. 23)
  • Low spending on instruction.  The for-profit institutions examined by Senator Harkin's committee spent more on marketing and recruiting students than they spend on instruction.
  • Excessive executive compensation.  Average CEO compensation for the thirty for-profit institutions that the Senate Committee examined was over $7 million! (p. 3)
Given the Senate report's shocking findings, why wasn't there a public outcry to clean up higher education's for-profit sector? Why wasn't federal legislation passed to better regulate the for-profit colleges or even eliminate them from the federal student aid program?  Why--more than a year after this report was issued--has nothing been done about the rapacious for-profit colleges and universities?

I think there are several reasons why Senator Harkin's report had such a small impact.

The report was too long. First, the report was too long, and its length discouraged people from reviewing it thoroughly.  Although it is accessible on the web, the entire report--including appendices--was more than 2500 pages long.

Senator Harkin's committee pulled its punches. Second, I think the report was overly restrained in reporting its findings given the explosive content of its report. For example, on page 2 of this 2500 page tome, the Committee said that "[f]or profit colleges have an important role to play in higher education," and that the non-profit and public colleges can't handle the growing demand for higher education on their own. 

This conciliatory stance implies that the nation needs for-profit higher education institutions; indeed we can't get along without them.  Personally, I don't think that's true. Surely our public and non-profit colleges and universities can meet the nation's demands for post-secondary education.  And if they can't, the federal government would do well to give the public and non-profit sectors more resources than to send $32 billion a year to for-profit colleges with their overall record of poor performance.

The committee made puffball recommendations. Finally, Senator Harkin's committee made puffball recommendations for reform--far too mild given the serious problems that the committee documented.  Let's face it--if 46 percent of students who borrow money to attend for-profit institutions will eventually default on their loans, then the for-profit sector is not doing a good job in preparing students for the workforce.  That fact alone requires drastic action.

Nevertheless, Senator Harkin's committee only made timid and uninspired recommendations for reform like enhanced transparency, an online student complaint clearinghouse, and improved default tracking. (pp. 13-14)

The bomb that failed to explode

Senator Harkin and his Senate Committee had an opportunity to raise the alarm about the for-profit higher education industry that has hurt millions of students who paid far too much for educational experiences that didn't prepare them for good jobs. Anyone who reads the report carefully and grasps its implications can see that the report is a bombshell.

Unfortunately, this opportunity was squandered.  Senator Harkin's report was a bomb that failed to explode.


U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. For Profit Higher Education: The Failure to Safeguard the Federal Investment and Ensure Student Success. 112 Congress, 2d Session, July 30, 2012.

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