In April I reported that Michelle Rhee, the controversial former superintendent of Washington, DC public schools, would be speaking at a meeting of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the government relations umbrella group of for-profit colleges in the United States.
She promised to tell for-profit colleges “the hard truths they need to hear” at their annual conference this month at Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. It didn’t really work out like that.
That decision to speak at the conference was, of course, entirely Rhee’s prerogative. If she believes America’s for-profit colleges, which enroll only 12 percent of students but generate about 45 percent of student loan defaults, are a great trend in higher education, she has every right to say so. The fact the APSCU probably paid her about $50,000 to show up at the conference is also entirely legal and appropriate for an annual conference of businessmen.
Rhee, who works to “defend the interests of children in public education and pursue transformative reform so that America has the best education system in the world,” assured observers that she was going to be critical of for-profit colleges. As she explained in a piece she wrote for the Huffington Post:
While too few of their students acquire degrees, too many end up saddled with crippling debt.” I plan to tell the for-profit colleges that they need to do a better job of making sure their students are getting a good education, are graduating with meaningful degrees, and are able to do so without being saddled with unreasonable debt.
But the problems aren’t just academic. Some of these schools seem to be engaged in downright malicious behavior, cravenly taking advantage of students trying to get a better education and a better job. An investigation by the Government Accountability Office in 2010 looked into recruiting practices at 15 for-profit colleges and found outright cases of fraud at four. Moreover, they found that officials at every single one of the colleges investigated lied or misrepresented the programs offered in order to convince students to enroll. That’s wrong, and I plan to tell them so. These schools need to focus on getting the best outcomes for their students — the people relying on and trusting these schools to provide a high-quality education.
Well it turns out she wasn’t that critical. David Halperin of Republic Report writes that,
Rhee said that there were for-profit colleges in the room “doing incredible work.” She said that such schools should seek to ensure that lower-performing schools do better. She asked the schools who “aren’t where they need to be” in terms of performance to “work harder, knowing what’s at stake.” Rhee did say that “we all lose when we allow people who are not doing right by our students to continue to operate.” But she said that colleges should set high goals for graduation rates but seek “apples to apples” comparisons for accountability — which echoed APSCU’s own talking point that the low graduation rate of many of its members is acceptable given the many low-income students who enroll. Although she claimed in her article to support the Obama Administration’s gainful employment rule, Rhee did not urge APSCU to drop its opposition to that rule — or its pending lawsuit against it. Nor did she ask APSCU to drop its objections to President Obama’s new executive order aimed at protecting U.S. troops and veterans from predatory recruiting practices by for-profit schools. Nor did she tell them that some for-profits are engaged in “downright malicious behavior.”
Incredible work? Perhaps, but the appropriate way to institute meaningful change in a business sector responsible for extensive scamming is probably not to praise it for “incredible work,” and speak only in general terms about its problems.
Listen to her remarks here: