New Grilling of For-Profits Could Turn Up the Heat for All of Higher Education

Congress plans to put for-profit colleges under the microscope on Thursday, asking whether a higher-education model that consumes more than double its proportionate share of federal student aid is an innovation worthy of duplication or a recipe for long-term economic disaster.

The review is being led by Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who is chairman of the Senate’s education committee. Mr. Harkin has expressed concern that recent moves by Congress to pump billions of new dollars into student aid might be undermined by corporate-owned colleges interested primarily in maximizing returns to shareholders.

The evaluation threatens new headaches for an industry that is sometimes exalted by government policy makers as a lean results-oriented example for the rest of academe, and other times caricatured as an opportunistic outlier that peddles low-value education to unprepared high school dropouts.

Many of the issues at stake, however, could mean harsher scrutiny for all of higher education, as worries about rapidly growing costs and low-quality education in one sector could raise questions about long-accepted practices throughout higher education.

Congress and colleges still lack a firm sense of "what our higher education system is producing," said Jamie P. Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation for Education. "The model of higher education is starting to evolve, but it’s not clear to us what that evolution looks like," he said.

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