Has the Conversation Changed?

Leaders in for-profit higher education have historically tried to deflect criticism of the institutions by pointing to a few misbehaving "bad actors" who aggressively recruit unqualified students, keep them enrolled for as long as possible while burying them in debt and, if students stick it out long enough, award them worthless degrees.

But the events of last week — most notably the findings of the Government Accountability Office’s undercover investigation of recruiting at for-profit colleges that included inducements to commit fraud at four institutions, and the highly critical Senate hearing at which the findings were aired — challenged the validity of that argument and put advocates of the sector on the defensive in a way that they have not been for years. The developments emboldened critics, saying that the week’s events prove what they’ve been saying about the systemic nature of the sector’s problems.

And the developments prompted a perceptible, if subtle, shift in the rhetoric of for-profit college leaders and a set of self-imposed actions that, while derided by skeptics as little more than damage control, reflected a recognition by the institutions that their previous protestations may no longer suffice. "It’s not us, it’s them, so don’t penalize the whole sector" has become "it’s us, but it’s not really that bad, and we’re trying to fix it — so don’t use a heavy hand in regulating or legislating against us."

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