Monitoring the For-Profits

The U.S. Department of Education and — possibly — Congress are getting tougher on for-profit colleges, but the question of who enforces existing laws and regulations, let alone new ones, remains unanswered.

The Education Department has promised to step up its monitoring of financial aid issues involving for-profits, with plans to add staff to its investigative teams; other federal agencies, like the Securities and Exchange Commission, may get involved. Under pressure from the federal government, regional accreditors, in particular, have begun looking at for-profit institutions with a more critical eye than they did in the past, but maintain that their focus is on quality assurance and not consumer protection.

Neither set of agencies, which together are two of the three legs supporting the stool of postsecondary regulation, says it is willing or able to be the beat cop, so instead they point to the third leg: the states.

The only problem is that the states have never been required to take on great authority in authorizing for-profit colleges. Many do little more than give institutions a rubber stamp to operate as businesses. Others have agencies that approve new campuses and programs, and that investigate complaints, but even some of these stronger agencies say they don’t have the wherewithal to keep as close a watch on institutions as they’d like, let alone to enforce as they’d wish.

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