Senate Hearings on For-Profit Colleges

The U.S. Senate is preparing for a round of hearings about American for-profit schools and their policies. According to a press release by the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who is chairman of the committee, announced that HELP will begin to hold hearings about for-profit schools on June 24th.

For-profit colleges enrolled about 550,000 students in 1998. Today there are almost as many students at the University of Phoenix alone. In 2008 some 1.8 million people were enrolled in for-profit schools.

Politicians last looked seriously into the practices of for-profit schools in the early 1990s, when Democratic Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia held dramatic hearings in which for-profit administrators did things like plead the Fifth Amendment. Eventually the Education Department required for-profit schools to derive at least 15 percent of their tuition from sources other than the federal government.

The outcomes aren’t likely to be as significant in 2010, however. According to an interesting piece by Doug Lederman in USA Today:

The current round of federal scrutiny (in the form of potentially tough new rules)… is a far cry from the ’90s, for a few reasons. …For-profit colleges are too embedded in the fabric of higher education, and too essential to meeting President Obama’s goals for increasing the country’s college completion rates, to be dealt with in a way that would seriously damage their ability to contribute to that effort.

Furthermore, the 90s investigations were specifically about for-profit colleges and their abuses. This time around policymakers are worried about many parts of higher education. Americans are now worried about the financial practices, student debt, and outcomes at all sorts of schools, not just schools that exist to make stockholders money.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer