Concerned about the disproportionate share of federal student aid flowing to for-profit colleges, several Democratic lawmakers on Monday asked the federal Government Accountability Office to investigate the for-profit institutions, in terms of both quality and finance.
"Recent press reports have raised questions about the quality of proprietary institutions," said the letter signed by the chairmen of the Senate and House education committees and others.
"These questions stem from the rapid growth of this industry over the last few years, reported aggressive recruitment of students by such institutions, increased variety in the delivery methods used to provide education to students, and the value of the education provided by such institutions."
Republicans had mixed responses to the request.
“There may be bad players in this industry, but for-profits also provide very necessary services for rural people, and for people learning certain trades,” said Steve Wymer, a spokesman for Republicans on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. “We need to look for ways to improve the bad players, but not cast a wide net over the industry.”
For-profit colleges have less than 10 percent of the nation’s college students, but get about 25 percent of all federal student-aid disbursements.
With for-profit colleges taking in $26.5 billion in federal money last year, up from $4.6 billion in 2000, government scrutiny is becoming intense.
Last week, at a hearing of the House Education and Labor Committee, the Department of Education inspector general raised concerns about how accrediting agencies oversaw college credit hours, which determine how much federal aid students can get.
On Thursday, the Senate committee will hold the first in a series of hearings on for-profit colleges.
Meanwhile, the Department of Education last week proposed a regulatory package requiring greater disclosure by for-profit colleges, and tightening the rules against paying recruiters by the number of students they sign up.
The department is still working on a controversial proposal to cut off federal aid to for-profit programs whose graduates do not earn enough to pay off their loans.
Monday’s letter asked the accountability office to gather information on the growth of the institutions, their governance, and the kind, and quality, of programs they provide — along with students’ outcomes, completion rates, professional licensure rates, job placement rates and indebtedness.
In the letter, the lawmakers asked the accountability office to explore whether existing safeguards adequately protect against waste and fraud, and to make recommendations based on its findings.
The letter was signed by five Democrats: Representative George Miller of California, chairman of the House education committee; Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate education committee; Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois; and Representatives Timothy H. Bishop of New York and Rubén Hinojosa of Texas.