By Kevin Kuzma
Question: How long will Republican Senators sit around while for-profit motivations are improperly attacked and an education sector’s practices are scrutinized? Apparently, the answer is two Senate hearings (or somewhere around the six-hour mark.)
Yesterday’s Senate hearing was probably one of the most eventful the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee has seen in a long while. Several committee members walked out on Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), refusing to listen to further one-sided testimony from a witness panel assembled to pummel career education through the ground.
For about six months, Senator Harkin has put career education on the defensive with his series of hearings looking into the recruitment and marketing practices of America’s “for-profit” colleges. The two hearings held over the summer were one-sided and featured student anecdotes and loan default statistics that painted the career education sector as an industry that offers worthless degrees and leaves students piled under debt they can never, ever clear away.
At the same time, the Department of Education (DOE) has been considering a controversial rule that would limit access to college education to low-income and minority students. The DOE’s “gainful employment” rule generated some 90,000 letters during the public comment period with everyone from masseuses to English professors and Congressmen weighing in.
As part of the attacks on career education, the larger conglomerates were investigated with hidden cameras, critical data was sequestered from the schools by the government, and the traditional news media had a heyday digging up former students and career college graduates with colorful pasts that were all too willing to talk about their poor educational experience.
Nearly every moment of this scrutiny came without anyone offering any back story to who career college students are and why they might be more likely to default, how and why career training appeals to them, or any interest in students who have benefitted from their education.
But yesterday, retribution came. Harkin was put on the defensive. In his opening remarks, Harkin revealed the findings of a new report commissioned by Democrats that found half of students attending the nation’s largest for-profit colleges withdraw within two years. The report was based on data colleted by 16 for-profit schools.
After his statements concluded, Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming) criticized Harkin for the overly biased hearings that have slammed career education ad nauseam. Enzi told the Senator that there were issues throughout all of higher education and that his effort to continue concentrating solely on for-profits for was wrong. He said the hearings were obviously orchestrated in conjunction with the gainful employment initiative. Less than 10 minutes into the proceedings, Enzi stood up and walked out with the parting words: "I’ll leave you to go on beating up on for-profit colleges."
And, there was more discontent expressed. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) laughed out loud when Harkin claimed that for-profit schools saddle students with mountains of debt. McCain left for most of the testimony so he could participate in another hearing, though he would return to make a statement. When the floor was his, McCain read excerpts from a recent Huffington Post article by Lanny Davis that characterized the committee as elitist Ivy Leaguers who were attempting to vilify for-profit schools and others seeking to make a profit. Then McCain walked out.
Senator Burr (R-North Carolina), another Republican, also called out Harkin for conducting a "witch hunt." He noted that no one invited to testify at the third hearing was a Republican. He questioned the panel and his fellow Senators about what was more important for-profit/not-for-profit status or graduation rates? He walked out, too, after conferring with Harkin privately while testimony continued.
After all of the departures, Harkin said he had no idea the hearings would become a party issue. This drew a big laugh from the audience.
Of course, there was some political grandstanding, too, that at times was clearly premeditated. Before the hearing, there were rumors swirling that Senator Enzi would "storm out" after berating Harkin. If I had heard about it, then so had the Democrats. But apparently, our Republican Senators feel that once you’ve made you point, you’d better have some solutions ready or else.
And, there was some more testimony from witnesses. This time, it seemed to fall flat, especially because it was basically rehashed from the previous two hearings. This time, there was a disgruntled Kaplan nursing student, and representatives from the Institute for College Access and Success and the Council for Higher Education. The student was dissatisfied with her education and the cost which she said had put her $20,000-plus in debt. The other witnesses questioned the quality of career education and the schools’ high default rates.
So, what’s turned the tide? Why has a debate about education turned into party war? The Democrats are limping into the fall elections with the country losing faith in their ability to get things done. The party lines are deepening, too. The ground seems to be shaking on Capitol Hill and the chasm between parties is broadening as each move further to the edge of the political scale to hold onto what they believe in. The Republicans see that gainful employment does not address the issues the committee uncovered in recruitment practices. They see that, in the current economy, implementing a rule that would take away graduates in needed professions is a bad idea.
Yesterday’s HELP committee hearing felt like a good old-fashioned family disagreement at the table on Thanksgiving Day. The Democrats played the role of the strange uncle that won’t shut up and the Republicans were the offended patriarchs who called them out because they were tired of hearing it.