Comparing Higher Ed to Wall Street

Whenever worried leaders of for-profit colleges have implied in recent months that the U.S. Education Department is gunning for the institutions, officials of the federal agency have discouraged such talk, offering evenhanded rhetoric about treating all sectors the same in their push for increased accountability.

The words have provided little reassurance to the colleges, since they haven’t always seemed to square with the aggressive approach the Obama administration is taking in rewriting federal rules governing vocational and other programs.

On Wednesday, in a speech to state regulators who oversee for-profit colleges, the chief architect of the Education Department’s strategy, Robert Shireman, offered a much more critical assessment of the private sector institutions than he has in his public comments to date, according to accounts given by several people who were in the room. He compared the institutions repeatedly to the Wall Street firms whose behavior led to the financial meltdown and called them out individually, one by one, for the vast and quickly increasing sums of federal student aid money they are drawing down.

While Shireman’s comments were aimed most directly at the for-profit colleges themselves, they may be most noteworthy for his indictment of accreditation, higher education’s system of institutional peer review. In Shireman’s narrative before the annual meeting of the National Association of State Administrators and Supervisors of Private Schools, the accrediting agencies are to the for-profit colleges what the Wall Street ratings agencies were to the misbehaving financial firms: entities charged with regulating an industry that has grown too quickly and too complex for them to control, and that have an "inherent conflict of interest" because their existence depends on financial contributions from those they regulate.

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