Last Friday there were a couple of vey interesting developments, related to the Senate Education Committee’s investigation of for profit education. The first came from the Chronicle of Higher Ed, in an article entitled, “Online and For-Profit Colleges Face Beefed-Up Aid Audits from Department of Education.” When this article first came out I couldn’t help but smile when I looked at the Twitter feeds. Everyone was broadcasting it as another level of scrutiny being applied to the for-profits. What no one seemed to be paying attention to was the AND in the title.
When Sen. Harkin embarked on his crusade against the for-profits I heard everyone saying that it was about time someone took a hard look at what was going on in this segment of higher ed. When asked what they would do when the focus turned to the not-for-profits, everyone responded that that would never happen because, of course, we all know that traditional higher ed is without sin. Guess what? Apparently, it appears there are some folks on Capitol Hill who don’t seem to think that way. Now for all of those who set back and watched the for-profits get hammered by a Congressional fact finding committee (and I use the word fact in its most liberal form), its now your turn.
For all of my friends in the not-for-profit sector of online HED, don’t be surprised when you get a notice asking to present all of your institutional data, including but not limited to emails, forms, aggregated SIS and LMS data, and any internal logs of communication, within 30 days. Further, don’t be too surprised when the findings are distilled into 30 second sound bites if they don’t paint a very accurate picture. Rather, be prepared for those files to have been thoroughly cherry-picked to reveal the worst possible actions taken by anyone at your institution. The fact that these “findings” really don’t paint an accurate picture wont really matter all that much, because they make for great drama on the Sunday morning talk show circuit.
Now, for all of those faculty and institutions who are in the offline, not-for-profit sector, many of you are probably setting back saying to yourself that all of these people who are involved in online education are getting exactly what they deserve – are you so certain you wont be next? Sen. Harkin’s fervor, constrained budgets, exposes of students with crushing debt loads, backlash against the tenure system, and Tea Party vigor for accountability have created a perfect storm that could very easily put all of HED under the microscope.
Along the lines of universal HED accountability, Friday’s second development relates to comments made by Alexa Marrero, spokesperson for Rep. John Kline. In response to Sen. Harkin’s desire to single out the for-profits, Marrero said, ““The best approach to protect students and taxpayers is for greater transparency across all sectors.” To me this certainly sounds like a reiteration of the intent to start investigating not-for-profit online HED and potentially the offline component of the enterprise as well.
In his July remarks to the National Press Club, Sen. Dick Durbin said:
"By the way, I think we ought to have better outcome data from all colleges and universities that receive federal aid, not just for-profit institutions. The American people have a right to know what their tax dollars are paying for, and the government has a responsibility to make sure those tax dollars are well-spent. For that, you need real numbers."
Of course, in July, one party rule was a fact of life on the Hill and no one seriously envisioned that changing overnight. We now live in a much changed political environment and, with respect to the HED debate, this likely means that compromise will have to occur if the HELP committee still wants to pursue the issue of quality. So, at long last we may be seeing Sen. Durbin’s call for outcome data from all institutions become a reality.
From my perspective nothing would be more welcome. If every institution were required to federate all of their siloed data, followed by aggregation of all of those data sets on a national basis, then we would have complete transparency. At that juncture, there is no longer a need to pull anecdotal evidence; all of the quantitative data would be available for making meaningful comparisons.
Given that there appears to be a glimmer of hope that HED will be forced to move to a true data-driven enterprise, administrators should probably spend at least some of their upcoming Holiday break considering the fact that an overwhelming majority of institutions are probably not even remotely prepared to federate and analyze their data at meaningful levels.