More Than Bridgepoint on Trial

Given how the latest in U.S. Senator Tom Harkin’s series of hearings on for-profit higher education unfolded on Thursday, Andrew S. Clark, CEO of Bridgepoint Education, Inc., had to be glad that he and his lawyers decided he shouldn’t appear at the session, which focused on the exploits of his publicly traded company.

Sylvia Manning, president of the regional agency that accredited Bridgepoint’s Ashford University, probably wishes she too had found an excuse not to attend.

The hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions was framed as a "case study" of how for-profit colleges have embraced online education to fuel explosive growth and drive large profits, and Bridgepoint (the case study, in absentia) and for-profit colleges in general took a lot of hits from Harkin. He at one point called Bridgepoint "a scam, an absolute scam."

But while the career colleges were Harkin’s primary targets, as they have been throughout his yearlong examination, accrediting agencies and, to a lesser degree, state and federal governments, absorbed plenty of collateral damage. Harkin, for one, made it clear that he believes many accreditors lack the expertise to keep tabs on the increasingly complex operations of the biggest for-profit colleges, and warned that "something has got to change" if the agencies — as the federal government’s subcontractor on assessing institutional quality — are to continue to grant colleges access to federal financial aid.

“Many of these for-profit education companies are becoming multi-state corporations, and their main focus is becoming their bottom line rather than their students,” the Iowa senator said during an exchange with Manning. “The question I would ask is, in their current state, are our accreditation agencies equipped to oversee billion-dollar, multi-state corporations?” As is common on Capitol Hill, he didn’t wait for her answer, providing his own: "I don’t think so. I don’t think the accrediting agencies have the wherewithal."

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