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The Career Colleges’ Campaign to Discredit the GAO

Published:  December 2, 2010

Back in August when the Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that it had found “fraudulent, deceptive, and otherwise questionable marketing practices” at every single one of the 15 for-profit colleges it visited as part of an undercover investigation, career college lobbyists and leaders went into full crisis management mode.

The video the GAO released showing for-profit college recruiters lying to and badgering federal investigators posed as prospective students left advocates for these schools with little choice but to admit that serious recruiting abuses had occurred at some of the country’s largest for-profit higher education companies, including the Apollo Group (owners of the University of Phoenix), Corinthian Colleges, Education Management Corporation, and Kaplan Inc.

While for-profit college lobbyists and leaders mostly tried to pin the blame for these incidents on “rogue” employees at these schools, they generally did acknowledge that the GAO had provided a much-needed “wake-up call” to their institutions. “We have to show that we as an association and we as institutions are changing our behavior,” Harris Miller, the president of the then-Career College Association told Inside Higher Ed at the time. “It means not just saying something different, but doing something different.”

Similarly, in an interview with Dow Jones Newswires, Miller said, “My schools have stopped blaming other people for their troubles. This is a teachable moment.”

Well, the moment appears to have passed. Over the last several months, career college advocates have taken a decidedly different tack towards the GAO report: they have engaged in a campaign to try to discredit it. They have done this mostly on the down low -- with, for example, comments posted on articles and blogs impugning the motives and methods of the GAO officials who conducted the investigation. Typical is a comment that we received from “Rebecca B” on a post we ran earlier this week:

…the GAO needs to take back their cherry-picked report of schools with deceptive practices. They recorded thousands of hours at dozens of schools, found a few problems and proceeded to tar and feather the entire industry.

Similarly, in October, the financial analyst and for-profit higher education industry champion Trace Urdan of Signal Hill submitted a comment to Inside Higher Ed stating:

The GAO has stonewalled on providing complete video tapes of their interviews. And lately there have been allegations that the list of 15 was culled only after a broader list received preliminary interviews, suggesting cherry-picking and bias.

Another commenter seconded Urdan, writing:

Trace, you are right. I talked with one of the GAO staff involved with this study and she indicated that they had selected cases where they thought there were problems. It was not a random selection.

In November, Jorge Klor de Alva, the former University of Phoenix president, brought these concerns up publicly. Speaking at a meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, Klor de Alva revealed that for-profit higher education officials had filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request with the GAO for the raw footage of the interviews but had been rebuffed. The implication being, of course, that the GAO had something to hide.

At Higher Ed Watch, we find these allegations curious. For one thing, the GAO never claimed that it had chosen a random sample of schools to investigate. In fact, in testimony he delivered to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Gregory Kutz, managing director of the GAO’s Office of Forensic  Audits and Special Investigations, stressed that the GAO intentionally “investigated a nonrepresentative selection” of for-profit colleges:

“We chose colleges based on several factors in order to test for-profit colleges offering a variety of educational services with varying corporate sizes and structures located across the country. Factors included whether a college received 89 percent or more of total revenue from federal student aid according to Department of Education (Education) data or was located in a state that was among the top 10 recipients of Title IV funding. We also chose a mix of privately held or publicly traded for-profit colleges.”

In other words, the GAO never intended to conduct a scientific study of the for-profit college sector; nor did it seek to project its findings to schools that it had not investigated. In addition, Kutz made perfectly clear that the undercover investigators’ experiences at these schools were not all bad. “In some instances, undercover applicants were provided accurate and helpful information by college personnel, such as not to borrow more money than necessary,” he stated.

What the GAO did find, however, were significant and disturbing abuses at a select group of some of the largest chains of for-profit colleges in the country -- chains that collectively enroll hundreds of thousands of students each year. As we said before, the fact that the GAO was able to so easily find these harmful practices at a time when the industry was coming under such withering scrutiny shows just how endemic they have been. [To be fair, at least one chain -- the University of Phoenix -- has made a serious effort to revamp its recruiting practices.]

So far all of the allegations that have been made about the GAO’s investigation have been based on nothing more than innuendo and insinuations. This is hardly a surprise -- as these for-profit college advocates are simply trying to raise doubts about the most clear and damaging evidence that has been brought against their schools so far. They can’t prove their case, but they don’t need to. As long as they are able to sow confusion and uncertainty about the GAO’s conduct, they have achieved their goal.

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