The chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and strident investigator of for-profit colleges, Tom Harkin of Iowa, is now saying which education delivery companies are bad for America.

According to a piece by Stephen Burd at the New America Foundation, Harkin said:

Like Bridgepoint, schools that have large online programs seem to have particularly troubling outcomes. This becomes clear when we look at a large publicly traded school that has both a large online program and a large campus-based program for associate degree-seeking students. I am talking about a 2-year degree. We can see it on this chart.

Career Education Corporation–that is another one of these for-profit schools–has a withdrawal rate of 44 percent on their campus-based programs, and a whopping 69.5 percent in their online programs. Campus-based program withdrawal rate 44 percent; online withdrawal rate 69.5 percent. Something is very wrong here. To me, this suggests these online students are not getting the support they need. It is inexpensive for a school to enroll a student online, but to ensure those students are learning and succeeding would require a major investment that for-profit schools, obviously, are not willing to make.

What these high dropout numbers illustrate is a phenomenon called “churn.” That is an industry term for bringing in students, signing them up for loans and Pell grants, and then leaving them to sink or swim. Then they go out the door, and they bring in more. That is what they call churning through the students because so many students at these for-profit schools come in the door and then leave within 4 months, 5 months, 6 months. Many of these students don’t even show up in the data the Department of Education collects.

Bridgepoint, Career Education Corporation University of Phoenix. EDMC. These are the companies Harkin listed.

The problem with these schools, Harkin pointed out, is that they’re “growing” but they’re not increasing the way regular colleges do. Their intense marketing efforts vastly increase the number of new students who come into the colleges. But more new students in doesn’t just mean higher “sales.”

It’s education here; EDMC doesn’t sell, for instance, paper towels. These companies pretend to offer postsecondary education. Bridgepoint Education, for instance, says that it:

…was founded on the principle that those who are academically prepared deserve access to an affordable higher education without sacrificing quality, transferability of credits, accessibility and academic standards.

Well access is nice, but, the important part here isn’t just the number of students who enter; it’s the percent of entering students who actually earn degrees. And that looks pretty low at a lot of these places.

Now, granted, Harkin declined to take a step I would find interesting, which is actually naming the for-profit schools he does respect.

While in theory Harkin does seem to think for-profit schools actually can have a valuable place in America, so far the HELP investigation is only focusing on abuses. [Image via]

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

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