Office of Planning and Budgeting

Under Federal Fire, For-Profit Colleges Point Finger at Publics

As a result of recent federal scrutiny, the for-profit higher education industry and its supporters have begun to turn their protests toward the unfairness of singling out the for-profit companies while ignoring traditional higher education’s non-profit institutions, particularly public community colleges and four year institutions.

Congressional scrutiny of for-profit education companies comes at the same time that the Obama administration has been pushing new Department of Education regulations that would use three tests– debt-to-earnings ratio for students, debt-to-discretionary income ratio for students, and the loan repayment rate of students—to determine whether a for-profit program would be eligible for federal financial aid funds under Title IV. A large lobbying effort led to over 90,000 public comments on these “gainful employment” regulations, causing the Department to delay publication of the rule.

Opponents of these rules and hearings include Republicans and Democrats as well as various interest groups, many of whom receive large sums of money from the for-profit education industry. The sector’s industry group, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (known up until September 22 as the Career College Association), institutions, and other stakeholders have spent millions waging a campaign against further regulation. Notably, these lobbying efforts include Chairman and CEO Donald Graham whose Washington Post Company owns Kaplan as well as an 8% stake in Corinthian Colleges, both giants in the for-profit education sector that currently provide over 60% of the Post’s annual revenue. The Post has been called to task for using its opinion and editorial pages to argue against the regulations.

At a HELP Committee hearing on September 30th, three Republican Senators, Richard Burr (NC), John McCain (AZ) and the committee’s ranking minority member Mike Enzi (WY), emphasized their disappointment that the scope of the hearings did not include non-profit institutions. Additionally, for-profit institutions have funded two reports claiming that for-profit colleges are more efficient at producing graduates, and more responsible with taxpayer dollars than non-profit institutions, including community colleges, public four years and private four years. The increased aggressiveness with which proponents of for-profit education are attacking traditional higher education with misleading information and data is troubling. The market share of for-profit institutions continues to rapidly grow alongside ambitions to compete with traditional institutions.

Ultimately, federal attention paid to this issue is a possible harbinger of increased scrutiny for all of higher education. The federal government spends over $170 billion dollars on student aid (loans and grants) each year, potentially providing powerful grounds for increased federal oversight. Looking forward, some of the same questions being asked of for-profit colleges about debt burden, retention, and completion could be asked of the non-profit sector as well. The combination of rapidly rising tuition in an economic crisis, concerns about US competitiveness in the global economy, and the aggressive goals to nearly double the portion of Americans with some level of higher education may create a compelling case for increased federal attention.

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