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Demonizing the GAO

Published:  December 10, 2010

Last week, we wrote about how for-profit college lobbyists and advocates have been waging a mostly quiet campaign to discredit a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that had found “fraudulent, deceptive, and otherwise questionable marketing practices” at the 15 for-profit colleges it visited as part of an undercover investigation. Well, that effort came out in full force this week after The Washington Post reported that the GAO had made changes to the report that softened some of its findings.

Lanny Davis, the former Clinton administration lawyer who now serves as the for-profit higher education industry’s chief attack dog, led the charge, accusing the GAO of participating in a conspiracy to demonize the schools that have put him on retainer. “The defective and deceptive GAO study is just the latest in a deeply flawed regulatory process that has been biased against the for-profit college sector at every step,” he said in a press release.

And the industry’s allies on Capitol Hill were only too happy to join in on the flogging. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee of Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, went so far as to as to call on the GAO to withdraw the report, according to the Post.

At Higher Ed Watch, we believe the GAO does deserve some flogging -- because in its rush to publish its original report, it got sloppy and has now given the industry some ammunition to undermine the powerful results of its investigation. Despite what Davis and what other for-profit college lobbyists say, the vast majority of the changes are relatively minor. But there are several that are damaging in that they show some recruiters to have been more honest, or at least less misleading, than originally portrayed.

These instances, however, are few and far between and any suggestion that they invalidate the rest of the GAO report is simply outrageous. The investigation uncovered extremely troubling practices at a variety of for-profit schools and the revisions don’t change that.

The GAO’s undercover applicants were encouraged by multiple institutions to lie on their financial aid applications to obtain Pell Grants and federally subsidized loans they would not otherwise have been eligible for; they were provided incomplete and misleading information about the costs of the programs, their graduation rates, and prospects for employment; and they were encouraged to apply and enroll without knowing what their financial aid options were. At The Washington Post’s Kaplan College in Florida, they were scolded and badgered for simply wanting to know how much student loan debt they would have to take on before signing on the dotted line.

As we said last week, for-profit college lobbyists like Davis are trying to raise doubts and uncertainty about the most clear and damaging evidence that has been brought against their schools so far. That’s what they’re paid to do. It’s just a shame that the GAO has made their job a little easier.

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