Judging by the naming conventions alone, it was intended to sound unassuming, if not boring, even for the usual Wednesday morning Congressional hearing. The meeting title was “the House Higher Education, Lifelong Learning, and Competitiveness Subcommittee”, just the unexceptional-sounding moniker that encourages something more like sleep and something less like government interaction that we’ve come to expect in Washington. Few, if any average citizens are going to weather traffic, parking, building security, or the exquisitely polished tile floors in government hallways for such a drab title on the placard next to the meeting doors.
For participants like Career College Association CEO Harris Miller, however, the implications were hardly disguised. The for-profit school industry was to be central in the discussion on the findings of the recently released Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. The report raises concerns and suspicions about the regulations on career colleges and distance learning institutions in regard to quality of education and application for financial aid.
Adding fuel to the fire, some undercover investigators found that at least one career college in the D.C. area was helping students cheat on "ability to benefit" tests by directly supplying some answers to questions and, in some cases, fixing incorrect responses after the fact. An audio clip from the investigation was played during the hearing in which an official administering the test gives away answers to the first three questions, then goes on to direct students to be sure to fill in the answers as dark as they can. The school was not identified because the U.S. Government Accountability Office has referred the case to the Justice Department for possible prosecution.
Naturally, that drew a few cringes from the audience members who proudly affiliate themselves with career education. And they should be rightfully ashamed. Those practices are exactly the types of infractions they take precautions against and the image they hope to overturn by the honest performance of their schools and the lives they change with the education they provide.
In truth, we’ve all seen or heard of similar activity before, reported in much larger outlets. Time and again, the same deduction is made: there are still a few fly-by-night operations out there that enroll students for the financial aid money and offer them nothing in regard to education. These “schools” are the exception, not the rule. Everyone knows it, including legislators and officials from traditional colleges and universities.
Miller offered his input during the hearings. He said such brazen violations were “inexcusable,” but at the same time, the evidence did not suggest widespread problems. While the career college sector was called out in the report and by being the guest of dishonor at the hearing, the concerns expressed at the hearing itself were actually encompassing of the entire higher education space. The general consensus was that the Education Department and its need to implement stronger oversight for how colleges determine students’ academic preparedness.
Who’s to say what direction a Congressional hearing is going to take before the discussion begins? Rumors were circulating prior to this one that footage of the career college infraction might be shown during the hearing, which would have cast an even darker cloud on the career college officials in attendance. But even with the damning evidence being minimized to audio only, it still seemed that career colleges were needless taking center stage for an issue that obviously impacts every postsecondary learning institution in the country. Every one.
The larger issue here is that it felt like career education on trial again. Perhaps we should be thankful that the for-profit industry wasn’t debased as deeply as it could have been. At a time when career colleges are experiencing exponential growth and, for the first time ever clearly demonstrating strategic advantages over traditional colleges and universities, it seems a bit … unfashionable … to take make one sector the focal point for such a dialogue.
Full respect for the career college sector hasn’t come yet – and won’t, until our schools find a way to prove their students are real and deserving of the degrees they earn, and that for-profit motives are a consideration for the industry, but perhaps not at the forefront of career educators.
This isn’t likely to happen for some time since financial indicators are solely the way the sector’s performance is gauged. Despite the commotion on Capitol Hill, education stocks were “zipping” to quote one analyst who attended the meetings and then returned to his desk in the suburbs to gauge the market’s reaction to the testimony. Investors saw the meeting for what it was: a discussion in which the obvious issues were put on the record. Nothing more. Nothing discussed caused anyone with their wallet tied to the sector to change a thing. The safe money, apparently, is to bet on the government to discuss a subject – and make a show of it – while the rest of the world lives it … and moves on.