For-Profit Colleges, After the Elections

The debate about the proper role of for-profit colleges in the American education system has apparently now taken on weirdly partisan implications. Tamar Lewin wrote in the New York Times that the Department of Education’s proposed gainful employment rule is putting policymakers in two camps:

[Iowa’s Democratic Senator Tom] Harkin argued against for-profits — citing high tuition and student debt, and deceptive recruiting — in an op-ed article last month in The Washington Post, which owns Kaplan, one of the largest for-profit colleges.

Then Margaret Spellings, George W. Bush’s education secretary from 2005 to 2009, wrote an op-ed article in The Post, arguing that, particularly in tough economic times, the administration should not do anything limiting access to educational options.

And last week, at the Harkin-chaired hearing of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Senator John McCain apparently came in early in the discussion and, as Lewin explained,

Read briefly from a lobbyist’s opinion piece supporting the colleges, then accused the committee chairman, Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, of going on “ad nauseam” about the abuses at for-profits. He added that he hoped the committee would have a different agenda come January — and then walked out.

It’s too simplistic to say that Republicans are entirely supportive of for-profit colleges, and Democrats are entirely opposed, but the battle lines here are interesting. One wonders why McCain is so sympathetic to the for-profit colleges. The University of Phoenix might have something to do with this; its parent company, the Apollo Group, Inc., has its headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona.

Still, why can’t McCain, a member of the HELP committee, be bothered to sit through the hearing, one in which several people discussed abuses in the for-profit colleges? Was it just not interesting enough to listen to? The abuses, of course, are precisely the reason many policymakers think the companies need to be reformed.

The committee might have a different agenda in January, but only if the Republicans take control of the Senate. Why would Republicans be less concerned about whether or not students can pay back their loans? And why would Republicans be uninterested in trying to determine if proprietary colleges waste taxpayer-backed student grants and loans?

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