If you didn’t know any better, you might have gotten pretty fiery over for-profit education after reading one of the front page stories of Tuesday’s New York Times. The lengthy article titled “For-Profit Colleges Fail Standards, but Get Billions” is all about accusations of greedy institutions bilking taxpayers and taking advantage of students through fraud and other deceptive practices. Why the story ran on page one of the paper is anybody’s guess: the only timely element in the piece appeared toward the end of the article, where the author mentioned the Defense Department’s recent decision to bar the University of Phoenix from its tuition assistance program. By the time you got to that part of the article, you might have cheered the DOD’s decision to cut the educator off, despite the fact that the decision appears premature, based on allegations as opposed to findings (meaning they are meting out punishment before a full investigation or review).
The New York Times piece seems narrowly focused on denigrating an industry that has become the bastard-stepchild of higher education. Ever since U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin decided to take on for-profit education, the industry has been under intense scrutiny from state and federal regulators as well as partisan research and advocacy groups. The article would have readers believe that all the negative attention is the equivalent of substantiated claims that for-profit education is a fraud on federal student loan programs. Thirty-seven state attorneys general, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Department of Justice, and the Federal Trade Commission are all investigating for-profit schools. These schools must be horrible, right? But what the article lacks are legal holdings or findings of fact.
That several agencies are investigating industry participants is not tantamount to guilt: it is more reflective of the fact that regulators take their cues from other regulators. Once an industry becomes unpopular, everyone wants to jump in and get their piece of the pie … or the felled lion. For-profit education is now an obvious target. But, again, that does not make the industry per se bad.
Nor does the fact that many for-profit educators have settled with regulators mean they are guilty: people and companies alike perform a cost-benefit analysis when it comes to whether to fight or stand down. It often makes economic sense to settle out with regulators rather than stay the course through potentially lengthy costly litigation.
What is troubling is the undercurrent – and application – of guilt before innocence, both by the New York Times article and by regulators. What is missing is a comparison of how much for-profit education costs per student versus how much other schools cost, or what dropout rates and post-graduation employment rates look like across schools for single parents and the poor (the types of individuals typically enrolled in for-profit colleges). For instance, studies have shown that community colleges are costing taxpayers billions of dollars for uncomfortably high drop out rates. Other studies identify taxpayer subsidies covering significant amounts of college operating costs.
One of the major reasons why for-profit education has high drop-out rates and poor post-grad employment rates is that they are reaching individuals who otherwise may not have access to degree programs, such as single parents or people in economically depressed areas. These individuals have other complications in their lives that can make completing a degree or finding gainful employment more challenging (e.g., scheduling, transportation). These challenges are not the schools’ fault, but a reflection of external factors. Punishing the schools and taking away educational opportunities does not seem like the most thoughtful decision, but it’s the one that partisan groups, partisan journalists, and regulators seem to be angling for.
Instead of celebrating the Defense Department’s decision to cut off the University of Phoenix from its tuition assistance program, we should be troubled that it is doing so before completing an investigation. In a statement, the University noted that: “It is troubling that DoD has used requests for information from other governmental agencies as grounds for placing the university’s DoD MOU in a probationary status.”
For-profit education does have, and has had, its bad actors… as does every industry. But the all-out slam against the sector, the fight for its demise, is unfair and shortsighted. In the end, the greatest losers will be historically underserved populations who will be denied education opportunities.
The last few years have been tough on the for-profit education industry – it’s not easy being the target of a host of federal and state investigations. For-profit educators have been poked and prodded by, among others, the U.S. Congress, a coalition of state attorneys general, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Federal and state authorities, who see the industry as predatory, seem determined to squeeze it out of the education industry. A draconian set of regulations, known as the Gainful Employment Rule, that were issued by the Department of Education last year may be just what it takes for these detractors to get their way.
Amidst tougher regulations and incessant government probes, already two large institutions have flat-lined. In June, Corinthian Colleges announced its imminent bankruptcy. At the end of August, Anthem Education said that it would be closing its doors. Declining enrollment numbers, costly investigations and rigorous regulations (with hefty compliance costs) have been too much for these colleges to withstand. And their pleas for assistance from the DoE have fallen on deaf ears – the DoE has agreed only to facilitate orderly dissolution (in the case of Corinthian Colleges) or partial-campus acquisition (in the case of Anthem).
The DoE and regulators may be toasting victory as these colleges fall like dominoes. But the result of their party is thousands of students left with unfinished degrees and fewer education opportunities. Corinthian Colleges enrolled students at over 100 campuses; Anthem at over 40. What are students who have not completed their degrees supposed to do? Credits are not always (or easily) transferrable. Some students may not have other local opportunities to complete their education.
One of the major benefits of for-profit colleges is that they have focused on providing education opportunities to underserved populations and non-traditional students. People like single parents or full time workers who may not have access to a campus or who can only take evening or online classes have found course programs that can accommodate their needs. But regulators haven’t seen these educators as opportunity-makers; rather, they see them as opportunists preying upon the underserved. Because these students generally fund their education through federal student loans, regulators think that for-profit education companies are merely using students as conduits to federal money. They use the fact that drop-out rates can be very high, or that post-graduate employment rates can be low to support their theory that for-profit educators are ruthless predators. But high drop-out rates and low employment rates can be tied to other factors. The very populations these colleges serve are ones that are at higher risk of dropping out: single moms and full-time workers may not be able or willing to maintain consistent enrollment. This is a reality that has explained similar problems at public colleges and universities that have also been plagued with high drop out rates for non-traditional students.
Unfortunately neither regulators nor regulations targeted at for-profit educators take these dynamics into account. For-profit campuses located outside military bases or in economically depressed areas used to be beacons of hope and opportunity. Now they are turning their lights out in these communities. No one wants to see poor students burdened with debt; but “protecting” underserved communities and non-traditional students by taking away education opportunities seems skewed. Regulators would do better to establish a reasonable set of metrics and limit the number of agencies swarming for-profit college campuses.
Career Education Corporation, like a host of other for-profit education companies, has found itself spinning on the courthouse revolving door. The latest legal challenge for CEC: a False Claims Act suit filed in federal court in New Jersey on May 16. The lawsuit alleges that CEC defrauded the federal government by (1) falsifying job placement statistics to exaggerate the number of graduates working in their fields of study, (2) misrepresenting accreditation status of some of its programs to remain eligible for federal funding, (3) admitting students who did not have high school diplomas or GEDs, could not speak English, or were mentally handicapped, and (4) paying bonuses to admissions staff based on enrollment numbers. Many of these allegations are familiar to CEC as well as others in the industry. Unfortunately CEC – like many other for-profit education companies – just can’t seem to free itself from the yoke of enforcement agencies and plaintiffs’ attorneys.
Last August, CEC entered a settlement agreement with the New York Attorney General’s office following an investigation into allegations of inflated job placement rates and allegations of inadequate disclosures regarding accreditation status. That agreement cost CEC $10.25 million and imposed significant reporting requirements.
The allegation of inappropriate incentive compensation for college recruiters is a popular basis for lawsuits against the for-profit education industry. In May, the Department of Justice filed a False Claims Act suit against Stevens-Henager College, Inc. for allegedly illegally compensating recruiters. These suits follow similar False Claims Act suits filed against the University of Phoenix (which settled in 2009 for a whopping $67.5 million, plus $11 million in attorneys’ fees) and Oakland City University (which settled in 2007 for $5.3 million) for their incentive compensation structures. There is also a pending False Claims Act case against Education Management Corporation with claims that largely mirror those faced by CEC.
Unfortunately for CEC and its fellow for-profit educators, settling with one entity does not necessarily mean freedom from future suits by other regulators or supposed whistleblowers. The more common scenario follows the camel under the tent: once an investigation is initiated – and publicly announced – follow-on actions ensue. The host of False Claims Act cases against the industry is a perfect example.
Part of the problem is the nature of False Claims Act cases. These suits, which are brought on behalf of the federal government by private plaintiffs (known as “relators”), are intended to help root out fraud against the government. Whistleblower relators are given incentive to file claims as they can receive significant compensation should the lawsuit succeed (or settle). For instance, the whistleblowers in the U. Phoenix settlement received $19 million in compensation; the whistleblower in the Oakland City U. settlement received $1.4 million.
The concept of False Claims Act cases seems laudable – the government cannot possibly keep track of all fraudulent claims it pays out to government contractors and other recipients of federal funds; having private actors with personal knowledge come forward to help address the problem should save the government significant sums. But the host of False Claims Act cases against the for-profit education industry defendants has produced little new or damnable information. When False Claims Act cases are brought after the news of alleged problems breaks, or after an investigation is launched, the benefit to the government is substantially diminished. The lawsuits become more about economic opportunity for enterprising litigators and relators.
Things look a bit bleak for the for-profit education industry: it seems like every other day a new federal or state agency is launching an investigation or proposing new regulations. The latest news is that a coalition of 32 state attorneys general, along with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is expanding a probe into lending practices at for-profit colleges. This news follows pronouncements by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission of stepped-up initiatives to combat alleged predatory practices by for-profit colleges. In the midst of this full frontal assault, the industry is facing a major new regulatory scheme under the Department of Education’s impending Gainful Employment rule. What the new regulatory scheme will cover and require remains to be determined, but the released drafts of the rule portend extensive record keeping and reporting requirements. With mounting investigations and regulatory scrutiny, no wonder shares in for-profit education have been on the decline: how can these companies turn a profit in the midst of all this costly government intervention?
But the CFPB and the 32-state coalition could (unwittingly) be the industry’s knights in shining armor. The enforcement agencies’ expanded probe – along with action by the SEC, DOJ, FTC and the FCC – could provide a good argument for why the Education Department’s impending Gainful Employment rule may be redundant. Since there is so much disagreement over the Gainful Employment rule, not only over the prospective text,but also over the rule’s utility in the first place,it may be time to follow the cues of some in Congress who advocate abandoning the rule when the Higher Education Act is next up for re-authorization (this year).And if Congress could be persuaded to nix the rule, educators could allocate more resources to growth that would otherwise need to be focused on compliance with complex new regulations.
This argument initially may sound like a stretch, but consider some of the following points: (1) congressional infighting about the possible effects of the rule, (2) rule making failures as interested parties cannot come together on regulatory language, and (3) current law and enforcement actions that already address the goals of the prospective rule. There are only so many ways to skin a cat, and you can only have so many cat-skinners (poor analogical cat!).
(1) Congressional Democrats are split on whether the Gainful Employment rule would protect students or negatively impact students. Thirty Democratic members of Congress recently wrote a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan voicing concerns over the adverse effects a Gainful Employment rule could have on students. At the same time, 31 Democratic members wrote a letter in support of the prospective rule. During the back and forth on the Democratic side, many Republicans are advocating abandoning the rule, concerned that it would ultimately hurt students.With so much uncertainty, why press forward with a rule that has been lingering in limbo for years?
(2) While Congress members deliberate the rule’s ultimate utility, the Education Department and its panel of negotiators have slogged through several sessions of a statutorily mandated negotiated rule making. They have been unable to reach any consensus on what types of metrics to incorporate into the rule, let alone what metric ranges to use. After several months, three rounds of negotiations, and three very different drafts of the prospective rule, the Education Department is no closer to final language. The third and final round of negotiations, which occurred mid-December, highlighted the extent to which opposing sides remained polarized.
(3) The Education Department has stated that its goals for the Gainful Employment rule are to:
- Define what it means for a program to prepare a student for gainful employment in a recognized occupation and construct an accountability system that distinguishes between programs that prepare students and those that do not;
- Develop measures to evaluate whether programs meet the requirement and provide the opportunity to improve program performance;
- Protect students and taxpayers by identifying GE programs with poor student outcomes and end taxpayer support of programs that do not prepare students as required; and
- Support students in deciding where to pursue education and training by increasing transparency about the costs and outcomes of GE programs.
These goals are already being addressed in current regulations and current enforcement actions. For instance, in November the FTC released marketing guidelines directed toward for-profit colleges, advising colleges against misrepresenting, for instance, their job placement and graduation rates, graduate salaries, credit transferring, etc. The announcement was accompanied by guidelines for prospective students on choosing a school. The FTC’s guidelines send a message to the for-profit education industry: ensure integrity in your marketing and advertising or face the consequences of regulatory action. A new FCC rule, which took effect last October, restricts how for-profit educators can make recruiting calls to past, current, and prospective students.The SEC and CFPB are investigating student recruitment and private lending at various for-profit colleges for possible violations of, for instance, the Dodd-Frank Act (which prohibits violations of federal consumer financial laws and unfair, deceptive or abusive acts or practices), TILA and Regulation Z. And numerous states attorneys general have been actively investigating the industry under state laws.
The expanded probe that the CFPB and state attorneys general coalition is but a continuation of the panoply of government actions and initiatives directed at the for-profit education sector. But the probe provides an excellent basis for reconsidering the necessity of the Gainful Employment rule. The for-profit industry is not shy of regulatory oversight. All the new regulation would achieve is more cost to industry and taxpayers in compliance and compliance reviews.
For-profit education needs rebranding. With the recent appointment of Michael Dakduk as key advisor to the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the sector has made a step in the right direction. The onslaught of negative news against for-profit educators has severely impacted industry growth. Recent reports on drops in enrollment (and thus earnings) at Bridgepoint Education, Inc.,Strayer Education, Inc., Education Management Corp. and Apollo Group Inc. demonstrate just how hard the sector has been hit.
A central problem is for-profit education’s extreme unpopularity among government regulators – thanks, largely, to some bad actors overselling their programs and pressuring prospective students. Regulators both perceive and characterize for-profit educators as unscrupulous opportunists. Unfortunately for the industry, this is a characterization regulators like to broadcast to the public without much qualification. (Query: since when did it become okay for government representatives to lambast whole industries – and imperil jobs in those industries – for the actions of a few?). Most recently, the FTC has launched a campaign to warn veterans about for-profit education:
- “Colleges are there to help you, right? Hmm, not so fast. Not every school has got your back. Some for-profit schools may care more about boosting their bottom line with your VA education benefits. Some may even stretch the truth to persuade you to enroll, either by pressuring you to sign up for courses that don’t suit your needs or to take out loans that will be a challenge to pay off.” (http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/veterans-dont-get-schooled)
- “[S]ome schools manipulate the data or lie about how well their graduates fare.” (http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0395-choosing-college)
The FTC’s campaign, published in a news release and articles on the FTC’s consumer page, provides the above warnings about for-profit schools, offers questions to ask when choosing a school, and furnishes a link to filing a complaint with the FTC, should a consumer believe a school hasn’t lived up to its promises. The hyperlink to a consumer complaint page suggests that the FTC is actively seeking cases to pursue against for-profit educators. Any FTC enforcement action would likely involve allegations that a school deceived students about the cost, quality, or outcome of its program offerings – as the FTC is charged with protecting consumers from deception and unfairness in the marketplace. (Section 5 of the FTC Act broadly prohibits ‘‘unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.’’)
The FTC’s campaign follows statements made by President Obama this summer that “soldiers and sailors and Marines and Coast Guardsmen, they’ve been preyed upon very badly by some of these for-profit institutions.” The message publicly broadcast over and over decries the supposed predatory practices of for-profit institutions. It is an unfair stereotype with a significant impact on these educators, harming their enrollment numbers and forcing institutions to lay off employees and shutter campus locations. Yes there have been bad actors; but both state and federal enforcement agencies have been active in investigating and addressing predatory and/or deceptive practices. Blackening the eyes of all for-profit educators, which results from statements such as those of the President or the FTC, is overreach.
Part of the problem for government regulators maybe their difficulty accepting that educators could legitimately make money while students earn a degree. They may have the same reservations expressed by a representative from Student Veterans of America: “I am always professionally skeptical about any institution that must answer to shareholders and investors before students and customers.” But having to answer to shareholders and investors is not necessarily a bad thing. It can serve as a check on institutions to ensure they are running their programs effectively and efficiently; it can motivate institutions to be innovative and find better ways to meet their consumers – i.e. their students – needs and demands. For-profit educators are responsible for advancements in online education and other innovations that make education more accessible.The result: for-profit educators are to thank for opening education opportunities to many underserved groups, like single mothers.
For-profit educators are in definite need of some effective marketing to promote their benefits and to dispel the negative conceptions presumed by and relayed by government regulators and outspoken detractors. They are making steps in the right direction with APSCU’s recent appointment of Mr.Dakduk. Dakduk is a former Marine and the former executive director of Student Veterans of America.
APSCU President Steve Gunderson said Dakduk’s hiring “builds on our member institutions’ commitment to excellence in post secondary education for military and veteran students.” With Dakduk’s presence, the industry may better overcome the flinching bias of so many regulators. Dakduk has built a reputation for success in his work advocating for veterans’ education. While at SVA, he grew the organization from a small group to one with chapters at over 900 campuses nationwide.
Dakduk’s move to APSCU is even a little ironic: In one of the FTC’s articles that warn veterans about for-profit education, the agency suggests veterans consult the SVA on the credibility of schools they are considering. Dakduk’s replacement at the SVA, D. Wayne Robinson, is a graduate of Trident University, a for-profit school.
For-profit education has had its bad actors, but problems in higher education span the spectrum of colleges and universities, and it is unfair – and ultimately detrimental to students and communities – to single out for-profit institutions. Dakduk understands this and should help for-profit educators improve their image.