- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Republicans made good on their threat to boycott Tuesday’s Senate committee hearing on for-profit colleges, while Democrats appear intent on introducing legislation to rein in a sector of higher education they say leaves students heavily in debt but with very limited job prospects to show for it.

“At a time when Congress is single-mindedly focused on our federal debt, how can we blindly maintain policies that foot the bill for students to attend schools that have proven to be such a bad investment?” Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said at the hearing. “More needs to be done to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being used wisely.”

Mr. Harkin called the Education Department’s recent “gainful employment” rule — which will bar for-profits from accepting students paying with taxpayer money if they fail to meet three benchmarks related to repaying federal loans — a “modest” first step, but added that regulations aren’t enough and called on Republicans to help pass crackdown legislation.

Republicans do not appear interested.

The Republican members of the HELP Committee had threatened to boycott Tuesday’s session, the fifth in Mr. Harkin’s series on for-profits. They changed their tune last week when Mr. Harkin announced that Education Secretary Arne Duncan would testify, but a back injury kept him away from the hearing. Undersecretary Martha Kanter testified in his place, and the boycott went ahead.

Republicans think the hearings have served little purpose other than as a vehicle for Democrats to demonize the for-profit college industry.

“We are troubled … that the continuation of this investigation is motivated in part to embarrass” many for-profits, Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican and his party’s ranking member on the HELP Committee, told Mr. Harkin in a May 31 letter.

Republican senators also think the hearings have become repetitive, a claim that appeared at least partly true Tuesday.

Pauline Abernathy, vice president of the Oakland, Calif.-based Institute for College Access and Success testified Tuesday and said that career colleges like those in the for-profit sector “have the dubious distinction of the highest share of students with debt, with the highest debt levels for degree completers and the worst federal student-loan default rates.”

The Institute’s president, Lauren Asher, testified in September and said the same thing, word for word. Other sections of the testimonies are nearly identical.

The Democrats also invited a former Kaplan University student from Iowa, Eric Schmitt, to testify on Tuesday. The quiet father of two enrolled at Kaplan in 2002 when he was 27 years old, hoping to find work as a paralegal. He said that his for-profit education left him $45,000 in debt and working odd jobs to help feed his family.

“I cannot say that even once my degree has opened any doors of employment for me,” Mr. Schmitt said. “I slowly learned what most employers really thought of Kaplan degrees and graduates.”

Kaplan Inc. disputed Mr. Schmitt’s claims in a written statement after the hearing.

“The experience of other students in his class was decidedly different. Of the others … 13 of 16 [found a job]. In fact, the latest overall job-placement rate for all programs at the Cedar Falls, Iowa, campus is 94 percent,” the company said.

Mr. Schmitt did acknowledge that Kaplan helped secure an externship at an Iowa law firm after he got his associate’s degree in 2004. Kaplan contends that Mr. Schmitt told them in an alumni survey that “the externship program works reasonably well.” The company also pointed out that Mr. Schmitt has not engaged Kaplan’s career service, which helps graduates find work.

Several Democrats, including Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Al Franken of Minnesota, stressed that there are some for-profits doing a good job. In fact, Mr. Harkin praised Kaplan for recently instituting a five-week tryout period at its campuses, allowing students to attend classes for free for five weeks before committing. If the student decides to withdraw, he owes nothing.

The Education Department is now urging other for-profits to follow Kaplan’s lead

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