An Educator’s Perspective: For-Profit Colleges

Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who is also Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, is holding another hearing to address his concerns about for-profit colleges and universities in the United States. Republican members of the committee have announced that they will not attend the hearing unless Harkin is willing to look at higher education in general, rather than just targeting for-profit entities. For Harkin, the issue seems to be centered on sales tactics used by for-profit entities and the overall use of Federal funds, which critics have suggested are being used irresponsibly by the organizations that run various schools. There have been various stories that suggest students are ill prepared for their chosen field, and are also saddled with a large amount of personal debt.

Based on how events have unfolded over the last couple of years, it does seem as if Senator Harkin has a particular agenda when it comes to for-profit colleges. There are even reports that a GAO report that provided seemingly incriminating evidence against for-profit schools may have been presented in such a way that the for-profits were painted in a particularly poor light, even though actually data may have been corrected at a later date.

At issue also is the scope of Harkin’s inquiry. As mentioned, Republicans are concerned that Harkin is unwilling to open up his investigation to include all of higher education. There may be concerns about how for-profit entities conduct their affairs, but it is not difficult to find data that suggest students have trouble finding jobs when attending all different types of institutions across the country. To evaluate for-profit students outside the context of the overall economy would seem to be irresponsible. In addition, student debt is a typical outcome of higher education in America, particularly at non-profit private schools.

What is also lost in this discussion is that for-profit schools are expected to show that they are placing students in jobs. Non-profit private schools and public universities do not have to show evidence of employment for any of their students. Nevertheless, these schools also receive a massive amount of Federal aid. This is why Harkin’s inquires seems to be a bit targeted and lacking in objectivity. If there is waste in the use of Federal funding, it would seem reasonable to examine how it is being used everywhere, rather than is just one sector.

It would probably be unfair to suggest that the entire for-profit sector of higher education is free of problems, particularly since some of the issues have been well documented. However, it is also unfair to punish all for-profit institutions simply because some of them have struggled to meet educational expectations. I suspect Senator Harkin would like to be judged as an individual, rather than being lumped in with “politicians” as a single entity. Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly what he is doing. In today’s higher education landscape, there are for-profit entities that will admit students who cannot get into state schools. In addition, students are graduating from for-profit institutions and getting jobs. Hopefully the Senator will hear all sides of this issue and come up with fair regulations that allow for quality education to continue.

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