At a Senate Hearing, Tough Questions for a Fast-Growing For-Profit’s Accreditor

Accrediting agencies were back in the Congressional hot seat on Thursday, seven months after a hearing in which they were accused of ignoring recruiting abuses at for-profit colleges.

During Thursday’s hearing, Senate Democrats grilled the president of a major regional accreditor about its oversight of distance-education programs and raised doubts about accreditors’ capacity to evaluate billion-dollar multistate programs.

"I don’t think accrediting agencies have the wherewithal to do it," said Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and the chairman of the Senate education committee. "This is a whole different horse of a whole different color."

Mr. Harkin repeated his threat to impose federal oversight criteria on accreditors. "We may need to tell accreditors, ‘You need to do these things,’" he said.

Thursday’s hearing had been billed as a "case study" of Ashford University, a for-profit institution that was created in 2005, when Bridgepoint Education Inc. purchased Franciscan University of the Prairies, a struggling religious college in Mr. Harkin’s home state, and obtained its accreditation. The institution has experienced phenomenal growth since then, with enrollment swelling from 300 students to 78,000, 99 percent of them online.

Mr. Harkin, who is conducting an investigation into the for-profit sector, has been highly critical of Bridgepoint, accusing the company of profiting off taxpayer dollars while failing to serve students. In his opening statement, he hammered the company over its high dropout rate, low per-student spending, and eye-popping executive compensation, calling the college a "scam, an absolute scam."

Republicans, who have accused Mr. Harkin of conducting a witch hunt against for-profit colleges while overlooking problems in the nonprofit sector, boycotted the hearing. Only one Republican senator—Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming—made an appearance, and he left after making an opening statement. In his remarks, Mr. Enzi accused Mr. Harkin of conducting the "most biased and poorly executed hearings in my nearly 15 years in the Senate."

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