Investigation Scrutinizes For-Profit Colleges’ Use of Taxpayer Dollars

At least 257 for-profit higher education institutions receive more than 85 percent of their income from federal student aid. That figure, however, does not include military aid and benefits paid to individuals going to school on GI Bill benefits. In addition, although roughly 10 percent of for-profit college enrollment is made up of service men and women, the industry is receiving more than a third of money paid out to help veterans attend school.

A recent report by the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee revealed a combined $521 million in benefits for veterans and from the Defense Department benefits for veterans in 2010 was received by 20 for-profit schools.

For-profit institutions are required to follow the 90/10 rule. That is, only 90 percent of their revenue may come from federal aid. If the formula used for determining the 90 percent included benefits for members of the military many of these colleges would not pass.

This information has been helping to fuel efforts lead by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) to increase scrutiny on for-profit colleges.

“[T]hey are really going after the military in a big way,” Harkin told The Iowa Independent, believing it is because it does not count towards the 90/10 law.

Further fueling the nearly year-long investigation through the HELP Committee, which Harkin leads, is questionable recruiting and retaining efforts that have been uncovered.

Harkin said private non-profit colleges in Iowa, such as Buena Vista University, Simpson College, Graceland College and the like are still doing a good job of educating low-income students; perhaps even better than the Regents, because of the endowments they receive. But his attention toward the for-profit private colleges has raised a number red flags.

“The federal government is putting out half a billion dollars a year in educational assistance for veterans and for active duty personnel,” Harkin further told The Iowa Independent. “When I inquired from the Department of Defense as to where it was going, what was happening to these military people — Were they graduating? Were they getting diplomas? Were they getting jobs? — I got nothing back. The Department of Defense has no data on that. They simply send the money to them and that’s it.”

A Government Accountability Office report concluded along with the investigation Harkin led that the Defense Department and the for-profit industry lacked sufficient scrutiny over where tax dollars were going and how they were being used.

Carper told the Chronicle on Higher Education he was surprised to learn military aid was not included in the 90/10 rule, and suggested the government should consider adjusting that.

“I’m a big advocate of skin in the game,” he said. “There has to be skin in the game for markets to work.”

For-profits have not been alone in courting members of the military. Nonprofit and public colleges have as well. A 2009 Iowa task force found adding 100 veterans a year would yield an additional $800,000 in tuition income annually for the University of Iowa and nearly $2 million in revenue for the city of Iowa City.

For-profit schools have become the fastest growing sector of higher education, moving from 550,000 students in 1998 to more than 1.8 million students by 2008. Although they are still only 10 percent of the total higher education student population in the U.S., they take 42 percent of all Pell Grants.

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