New GAO Report Shows Mixed Picture on For-Profits, Part II

Last week, I wrote about a new report out from the General Accountability Office that investigated educational practices at for-profit schools. The report is mixed, with some schools looking good, and others that appear willing to violate academic standards in order to pass and graduate students. The context for this investigation is that about a year ago, the GAO released a similar report which it later had to make small corrections to, giving the for-profit industry a PR victory.

This week I’ll look at how representatives from the for-profit sector are reacting to the new report. No surprise here: they are going on the offensive. And the main weapon they are using is the previous GAO report. It’s a misleading attack, since none of the people who worked on the previous reported worked on this one. Penny Lee is the managing director of the Coalition for Educational Success, one of the larger organizations that promote for-profits. In a press release, she responded to the report using a classic ad hominem attack:

This latest report from the GAO needs to be viewed with an eye of skepticism based on past performance and issues surrounding the FSI unit at GAO. With more than a hint of irony, today’s report is released almost a year to the day as the highly-edited revised 2010 report.

First of all, why does it matter what day the report was released? More importantly, the previous report has no bearing on this one. It’s fine to view the report with “an eye of skepticism” but that doesn’t mean that the report is wrong. The rest of the press release is similar, suggesting that this report must be wrong simply because the last report had to be corrected. But she offers no evidence of inaccuracy. In fact, the majority of the response to the new report is taken up rehashing critiques of the old report.

Brian Moran is interim president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, another major promoter of for-profits. His statement about the new report is similarly problematic:

We should be dubious of this new report given the one-sided nature of Senator Harkin’s inquiry into the proprietary sector of higher education and serious flaws in the previous GAO report regarding this sector.  Earlier this year, the GAO was forced to take the rare step of revising a report it issued on recruiting practices in our sector, provoking a Congressional inquiry.  Unfortunately, Senator Harkin has chosen to target just one sector of higher education, while similar questions could and should be raised about the non-profit sector.

The argument sounds familiar by now: a previous report was flawed, therefore we should be “dubious” of this one. Does he point to any actual mistakes or inaccuracies? No. But he still says, with no evidence, that we should be skeptical. He also works hard to conflate the GAO’s work with that of Senator Harkin, whose office did not work on this document (and if they had, that would still not constitute evidence of inaccuracy).

This GAO report is a valuable look into how some schools actually act. If a school’s standards are so lax that they are passing students who routinely plagiarize or skip work, how can any student trust them to provide a quality education? These are important questions to ask, especially since preliminary results are showing that there is indeed evidence of problems. Unfortunately, the GAO left itself open to attack because of its previous report. I don’t think the attacks are fair, but if it had made sure its results were 100% uncontestable before publishing, its opponents wouldn’t have a potentially damaging way to attack it now. If the for-profit industry is confident in its educational value, it should be welcoming investigations as a way to prove how great its schools are. The eagerness to attack the GAO—especially when the attacks are fallacious—isn’t a good sign.

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