Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, has been on a crusade over the past few years against for-profit colleges. You know, schools such as the University of Phoenix or the DeVry Institute, educational outfits operated by profit-seeking businesses.
On Wednesday, he unleashed his latest fusillade, introducing a measure that would limit marketing and recruitment efforts by these institutions.
Sen. Harkin's contention is that too many schools spend too much money in these areas at the expense of instruction. In addition, he argues that these efforts "are funded by taxpayers" because most of their revenue comes from financial aid students get from the government.
His bill would apply to spending on advertising a current rule that bans using federal dollars for lobbying.
"We are sending a strong message to colleges that choose to spend federal dollars on advertising at a time that middle-class students and families are struggling to get ahead: Find the money for marketing elsewhere, not from taxpayers," Sen. Harkin last week.
How this will help "struggling" families and students remains a mystery, but it makes for a good populist sound bite. In fact, this is a regulation in search of a problem.
To say that tax dollars are funding the schools' marketing efforts is a bit misleading. Indirectly, sure. But once a student receiving government aid voluntarily pays his tuition to the school of his choice, that money is in general circulation. What's next, restrictions on how instructors at these schools can spend their paychecks, given that federal student loans cover the bulk of their salaries?
Even the American Council on Education – which represents all of higher education – expressed concerns that the Harkin proposal was overly broad and would impose a "very complex set of requirements on all institutions because of a handful of bad actors."
If Sen. Harkin is worried that too many for-profit institutions aren't delivering as promised, he should go after the fly-by-night operations committing fraud. But that doesn't describe the great majority of for-profit schools, many of which have successfully trained a great number of productive people in the work force today.
For-profit schools don't enjoy the built-in free publicity and subsidies accorded major public universities. Their marketing efforts play a vital role in their survival. How much they spend should be left to their executives and the marketplace.