Watchdog Agency Watches Itself in New Report

It may seem odd for the Government Accountability Office to turn its scopes inward, but a new internal investigation by the nonpartisan watchdog agency concludes that errors in a recent report about for-profit colleges were not the result of personal bias or conflicts of interest.

An Aug. 2010 report prepared by GAO’s special investigations unit exposed deceptive marketing practices at some of the nation’s largest for-profit colleges — findings that led to a series of congressional hearings and news reports on the issue.

But GAO later revised portions of the report, including changes to key passages describing the marketing practices. The changes prompted education industry leaders and lawmakers to ask for an investigation.

On Tuesday, GAO said "supervisory and analytical weaknesses" in the report led to errors and missing context. It didn’t elaborate on the conclusions and said the results were shared only with the lawmakers who raised concerns.

"We are immediately implementing the inspection review team’s recommendations to ensure that the process issues on this engagement do not occur again," GAO spokesman Chuck Young said in an e-mail. Officials are still considering what, if any actions should be taken against the report’s authors.

GAO conducts internal inspections on a sample of reports each year, but investigations similar to the recent probe only occur about once every two years, Young said.

Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said the committee plans to work with GAO to address the "very serious, systemic problems " raised in the report.

Issa and other lawmakers raised concerns with GAO’s findings after various for-profit education institutions complained. The Coalition for Education Success, which represents many of the firms, sued GAO last week for damages stemming from the report’s conclusions.

Avy Stein, the coalition’s co-chairman, said the GAO should retract the entire report. "The biased and error-riddled GAO report continues to cause billions of dollars of damages to a sector that employs 500,000 people and educates 3 million students," he said in a statement. "Yet, critics still tout the now-discredited findings."

Meanwhile, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee raised fresh concerns about for-profit colleges on Tuesday by releasing internal training documents obtained from several institutions — including Kaplan University — that encouraged recruiters to use "pain" and "fear" to attract low-income students.

Kaplan — which is owned by The Washington Post Company — has said it no longer uses such methods.


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