NAICU Washington Update

Accreditation at Center of Harkin For-profit Hearing

March 23, 2011

The latest hearing on problems in for-profit education clearly put a target on accreditation, and the federal government's view of its role in ensuring quality in American higher education.  With Sylvia Manning, chair of the Higher Learning Commission, on the witness hot seat, the hearing concluded with a troubling exchange between Manning and the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

Manning pleaded for continued reliance on accreditation for smaller schools, while opening the door to a different regime for large multi-state corporations.  Harkin replied that "something had to change" when accreditors provide "access to Pell Grants," and that the federal government had to be more specific in telling accreditors what they had to do. He went on to draw parallels between accreditors' role in higher education, and  bond evaluators during the recent subprime crisis in housing.

Earlier, Harkin had begun the hearing with a review of the current three-tiered oversight system - accreditation, state authorization, and the Department of Education - used in approving institutions to receive federal student aid funds.  He went on to cite many of the common problems his previous hearings had identified in the for-profit sector, then focused on Ashford University in Iowa as a case study of these bad practices in a single institution.

Ashford University's was established by a group of former University of Phoenix executives in 2005, when Bridgepoint Education, Inc., Ashford's parent company,acquired The Franciscan University of the Prairies. The university had 300 students at the time of the acquisition. Today it has 77,000 students, with 99 percent of them on line.

According to Harkin, over 60 percent of the school's revenues go to profits and recruiting, and while the school has more than 1,700 enrollment personnel, only one staff member does job placement.  By 2010, Harkin said, 84 percent of their two-year students who had enrolled the previous two years had dropped out, as had 63 percent of their four-year students over that period.

Kathleen Tighe, the Department of Education's Inspector General, also testified on her review of Ashford University.  Another witness was Arlie Willems, now retired from the state teacher ed program authorizing entity in Iowa, who had stripped recognition from Ashford's teacher education program.

Ranking Member Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) called the hearing another in a long list of biased hearing by Harkin, into the for-profit sector. He did not stay for most of the hearing.

More hearings are anticipated.

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