Office of Planning and Budgeting

Senator Tom Harkin and the HELP Committee Continue to Investigate For-Profit Colleges

The atmosphere was tense on the morning of September 30th as attendees, many of them proponents of the for-profit higher education sector, overflowed into a second room to witness a hearing held by the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions (HELP). The hearing, The Federal Investment in For-Profit Education: Are Students Succeeding, was the third in a series held by the HELP committee under the leadership of its Chairman, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA).

A GAO report on the results of an undercover operation that investigated 15 for-profit education companies revealed “misleading, deceptive, overly aggressive or fraudulent recruitment” practices at all 15 schools visited. Two reports by Senator Harkin’s staff, Emerging Risk?: An Overview of Growth, Spending, Student Debt and Unanswered Questions in For-Profit Higher Education, and The Return on the Federal Investment in For-Profit Education: Debt Without a Diploma, provided even more detail, drawing on nationally available data as well as data that Senator Harkin requested directly from 30 of the largest privately held and publicly traded education companies.

Some of the facts revealed in these publications:

  • Less than 10% of postsecondary students are enrolled in for-profits, yet they receive 23% of federal aid, and account for 44% of all loan defaults.
  • 95% of all students at for-profits borrow money to attend, compared to less than a quarter of community college students, 64% of students at public four year institutions, and 72% at private four year institutions.
  • Almost 60% of students at for-profits drop out within 2 years of enrolling.
  • Student enrollment has grown exponentially. For example, in 1991, the University of Phoenix had 7,000 students. Today it has 475,000 and is the 2nd largest higher education system in America, enrolling more students than the Big 10.
  • On average, 90% of all revenue comes from federal student aid dollars (a $24b annual taxpayer investment), belying claims of being purely private sector institutions.

As the hearings have uncovered more information about these companies, Chairman Harkin’s resolve to continue the fact finding mission has strengthened, and he has pledged to sponsor legislation aimed at tightening regulations. Harkin called fundamentally flawed and unconscionable a system that funnels taxpayer dollars through poor students to line the pockets of the wealthy, leaving many students with no diploma, all students with heavy debt, and the taxpayers, who have guaranteed that debt, at risk.

The next hearing will be held in early December.

In our next post we will consider the implications that this issue might have for traditional institutions of higher education like the UW.

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