The Senator and the Schools

By Watson Scott Swail, CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

Senator Tom Harkin has had a distinguished political career. He is seen as a moderate Democrat who gets along with his Senatorial colleagues and tries to do the nation’s business in a meaningful and tangible manner with decorum. He has been a supporter of college access and success throughout his career. To protect the interest of taxpayers and students, he decided this year to go after those despicable for-profit, career colleges.

As our colleagues at Higher Education Watch, a blog from the New America Foundation, are keen to note, Senator Harkin has been on a campaign over the last year to investigate, if not castrate, the for-profit higher education sector. I’m very thankful for the singular focus of Higher Education Watch, which quite apparently has little else to do in the vast field of education other than provide more details about how horrific this industry is. In fact, Higher Education Watch and Senator Harkin, together, are showcasing the for-profit sector as having the poorest retention and graduation rates, and therefore are “bilking” the taxpayer through misused Pell Grants and subsidized student loans.

Let’s be clear: I have no interest in supporting or denying the Senator’s claims on this issue. All elected representatives have the duty to ensure that taxpayer funds are used appropriately and both, government and non-government organizations and businesses act in the best interest of the nation, if not the world.

But I have problems with the way the Senator and allies have totally cast the for-profit sector as the villains in higher education. I find it more interesting that the effort to look at the efficiency and efficacy of higher education and the financial aid system has excluded all other sectors of higher education. This has become a witch-hunt.

It is true that there are “bad apples” in the for-profit sector. There are schools that perhaps should be closed, and there are strategies and practices that need to be changed. The graduation rates can be low. But what about the public institutions? I, myself, have visited two-year public colleges with 8 percent graduation rates. Eight percent! Where is the concern over those institutions?

As to the argument about unethical recruitment practices, surely there exist two- and four-year institutions that salivate over new students in order to increase their FTEs and gain additional state subsidies. I know that happens.

This witch-hunt is happening because the for-profit industry is an easy target. Congress nailed them in 1992 and pinned their collective ears back, and they are at it again. For profit institutions are about making profit, to a degree. But so are public universities. A tax status does not change how these institutions operate. There are non-profit groups very interested in making money (which is not a sin), and for-profit businesses that are more philanthropic. This isn’t about tax status. It is about efficacy.

Do I want bad colleges closed or reprimanded? Yes, but I don’t want to focus only on one sector of the population. If you are going to point fingers, please point them at the entire higher education industry, because that is the only fair thing to do. What we are seeing now isn’t fair. Nail institutions that are doing bad things. But nail them all.

Whether readers like it or not, for-profit schools have become an essential provider of learning opportunity in the United States and beyond. I regularly run into individuals with master’s degrees from for-profit institutions, like Phoenix, Kaplan, and Strayer. And these are professionals AND educators. The portrait being painted that these schools are only interested in providing substandard education to the poorest of the poor is misleading. It is unfair.

To the Senator, if you are going to keep going after the for-profit sector, please let us know the hearing dates on the efficacy of public institutions of higher education, which at least deserve the same fair review that you are giving to career colleges.

For what it’s worth.

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