US Official Suggests Significant Changes in Rules on For-profit Colleges

There remain at least some higher education conferences that aren’t dominated by discussion of for-profit colleges. The meeting of campus housing officers tends to focus elsewhere, for instance — after all, few commercial institutions bother with residential students — and you wouldn’t have found a lot of professors from publicly traded companies presenting on the fruits of their research at the just-completed Eastern confab of the American Philosophical Association.

But just about every meeting related to higher education policy these days seems to revolve in meaningful if not large part around the issues raised by the fastest-growing, and most controversial, sector of colleges and universities. This week’s meeting here of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation is the most recent and powerful example.

It went beyond the formally scheduled sessions about the institutions, though it had those — one featuring leaders of two of the biggest players in the industry, the University of Phoenix and Kaplan, Inc., and another discussing the challenges posed to accrediting agencies by the financially complex and fast-changing colleges. (Several accrediting agencies, including the Western Association of Schools and Colleges’ senior commission, are examining their policies to decide whether they need different or additional tools to assess the finances and recruiting and other practices of for-profit institutions, for instance.)

But even a standard staple of the annual CHEA meeting — presentations from key Congressional and executive branch officials about matters important to educators and accreditors — this year focused heavily on issues related to for-profit institutions. In her first speech to a higher ed audience since being named to head the postsecondary subcommittee in the House of Representatives in the new Congress, Representative Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) offered skeptical words about the wisdom of the rules the Education Department is crafting to ensure that vocationally oriented programs prepare their students for "gainful employment."

Foxx stopped short of saying that she would oppose the rules — which, at least in the last version published by the department in July, would judge programs’ value in part by linking graduates’ incomes to their levels of student debt. But she seemed to denigrate the process by which they were drafted, which she said "concentrate[d] arbitrary power over a select group [of colleges] in the hands of a few unelected bureaucrats." If a debt-income ratio makes sense — "and I’m not sure it does," she said — "it should make sense for every last institution that receives federal aid."

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