Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Wisconsin for-profit college accountability effort killed

The effort to hold Wisconsin for-profit colleges accountable for graduation and employment outcomes was killed last week in response to strong opposition from for-profit colleges, influential Republican lawmakers and Governor Walker.

The Educational Approval Board, which decides whether for-profit colleges can operate in the state, shut down a committee charged with developing standards for for profit colleges almost as soon as it had convened.

It is hard to miss the hypocrisy of a Governor who insists on greater and greater accountability from public schools, colleges and universities, opposing accountability standards for for-profit colleges, many of whom have become notorious for exploiting low-income students, illegally paying recruiters by the head, and other unsavory practices.

For profit colleges, like Everest College in Milwaukee, have been accused of manipulating students into taking out huge loans for programs and credits that do not transfer or lead to employment,leaving students with little more than onerous debt. Milwaukee's Everest College had a job placement rate of only 5% and a graduation rate of less than 50% when it suddenly closed its doors after only two years of operations.

Nationally, several for-profit colleges have been sued for fraud by state governments and former students. And recently several prominent for-profits including Kaplan, the University of Phoenix, Everest and Sanford Brown have closed campuses.

The committee had met just once, on Feb. 22, a meeting dominated by testimony opposing the standards by representatives from numerous for-profit colleges. Earlier that month, Gov. Scott Walker replaced three members of the seven-member approval board. There is one vacancy.

Then on March 12, Rep. Steve Nass, chairman of the Assembly higher education committee and vocal and acerbic critic of the University of Wisconsin system, wrote in an email to the approval board that it should suspend the committee and work "in a more cooperative atmosphere" with the schools. "I believe this process is very premature," Rep. Nass wrote. He called the regulation efforts — which would have required the colleges to show that at least 60 percent of students who started programs finished and got jobs in their fields — well-intentioned but needing more study and input.

National observers took a different view, noting that similar measures throughout the country typically meet the same fate against the well-funded for-profit college industry. "The basic narrative is pretty much the same," said Barmak Nassirian, a Washington, D.C. independent education policy analyst who's studied for-profit colleges for two decades. "The industry obviously put a full-court press on and killed the effort."

For-profit colleges told the board last month the accountability standards were unreasonable. "You are proposing performance expectations that very few of your own public institutions could meet," said Vickie Schray, a senior vice president at Bridgepoint Education, parent company of Ashford University and University of the Rockies.

David Dies, the executive secretary of the EAB, said it's beside the point. EAB doesn't oversee public schools and Dies said the economic consequences of students not succeeding at for-profit schools can be far more dire since students tend to take on much bigger debt loads.

A federal report last August looked at 30 for-profit higher education companies and found they charge students up to four times the cost for some programs as publicly funded community colleges, resulting in heavy debt loads and spotty graduation and job placement outcomes. "Those individuals become a drag on the state's economy," Dies said.

In his email, Nass cited the concerns of colleges, saying the new measures came unexpectedly and without adequate input. He also referenced Walker's new appointments to the EAB. In early February, the governor announced three new appointees — Robert Hein of Janesville, a UW-Rock County math professor, William Roden of Grafton, an educational consultant, and Katie Thiry of Prescott, an online college teacher.

By removing three board members who backed establishing accountability standards, Walker effectively killed the effort to hold for-profit colleges accountable for their exploitation of Wisconsin residents.

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