By Dr. Jean Norris
Last November, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) quietly issued a heavily edited and revised version of an earlier report they published that incorrectly criticized the for-profit college sector. At the time, the GAO received significant criticism on their effort from media, education experts and other commentators.
Critics pointed out the shoddy and unprofessional work originally put forth by the GAO, as well as the resulting damage it caused the for-profit college industry. It was clear that many errors and misleading conclusions were retracted from the earlier study that was broadly touted.
However, the GAO had its defenders and champions — among them Tom Harkin, Chairman of the U.S. Senate HELP Committee. At the time the updated report was released, Sen. Harkin, the Department of Education and others insisted that the new report did not change the fact that all 15 schools examined by the GAO were still guilty of violations. They even used the GAO report and testimony to aggressively pursue the for-profit college sector — resulting in substantial damage to college reputations and revenue.
In further defense of the report, Sen. Harkin took the step of posting all of the supporting materials the GAO used to develop the report. In essence, Sen. Harkin issued a bold challenge to everyone by insisting that these underlying materials revealed the same violations in the for-profit industry that the original report chronicled.
Well, we accepted this challenge.
A skilled group of industry experts from Norton?Norris, Inc., including myself, spent more than 164 staff hours reviewing 25 audio recordings, made publically available, against the findings reported in the updated GAO report. The results were astonishing.
The lack of basic knowledge regarding college admissions practices and inaccurate reporting of conversations in order to skew facts was shocking. Instead of using enrollment and financial aid experts to analyze the recordings, the GAO clearly rushed their report and included factually incorrect information.
We determined that the GAO inappropriately conducted, analyzed and reported on its undercover testing of the for-profit college industry. Of the 65 original findings in the GAO study of misconduct, we found only 14 to be credible (an additional 14 cannot be confirmed due to lack of publically available materials.)
Nn found flagrant errors and misrepresentations by the GAO, even after they issued a heavily amended and revised version of the study in November 2010. In fact, only 25% of GAO findings can be confirmed when factoring out the missing recordings. The other 40 alleged findings were not valid and serve no meaningful purpose to be included in the GAO report.
There is no question the GAO misrepresented many conversations and explanations from their investigation to fit a policy agenda, rather than an unbiased reporting of their findings. Here are three simple examples that demonstrate further what I’m talking about.
First, throughout the report, the GAO shows it does not understand the difference between an academic year and a calendar year. As a result, five of their findings regarding program length and cost are completely wrong and do not even merit mention in the report. This is a sophomoric mistake and is a prime example of an agency that does not understand the industry.
In another instance, an admissions representative thoroughly explains student loans and the importance of financial responsibility. The admissions representative even suggests the undercover applicant borrow less than what they need. However, the original GAO report, as well as the revised version, ignores these statements. Instead, they focus solely on another statement offered during the conversation regarding the undercover applicant’s ability to take out the maximum in loans.
Finally, in an attempt to paint a college as “over-promising” expected earnings at graduation, the original GAO report stated the undercover applicant could make up to $100 an hour. The revised GAO report adjusts this down to $30 an hour. But the recording reveals that the undercover applicant is given a data sheet and the admissions rep states that the minimum average rate per hour for their profession is $22. The GAO never reports this accurate piece of information.
It’s one thing to perform a faulty and error-ridden investigation that leads to false conclusions. It’s another thing to use this faulty information to advance public policy and tarnish the reputation of many well-regarded institutions and organizations. The GAO report has caused a loss of billions of dollars of market value for companies in the for-profit industry, not to mention reputational damage. And let’s not forget the negative impact on the students who attend or were considering attending one of these colleges.
Sen. Harkin vigorously defended GAO’s amendments by challenging anyone to refute its conclusions about for-profits. In December, he wrote “While the GAO made some revisions and clarifications of the long list of misleading practices it documented, the finding stands — every single school its investigators visited engaged in misrepresentation, deception or outright fraud.”
Far from “revisions” and “clarifications”, the GAO’s work in this instance is embarrassingly unprofessional and poor. The fact that we found the report’s conclusions to be outright false is entirely fitting for a whole process riddled with mistakes, failed analysis and a fundamental lack of understanding. To defend this body of work’s conclusions is to ignore the realities that we discovered – simply by taking the time and care to look.
Dr. Jean Norris is Managing Partner of Norton | Norris, Inc. (nortonnorris.com), a Chicago-based marketing, advertising and training company focused on the higher education sector. She is the author of a new study that reviewed the GAO undercover testing on for-profit colleges. The study was commissioned by the Coalition for Educational Success.