Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Coverage of the For-Profit Higher Education Industry

by: Matthew Denhart

Back early last month I had the pleasure of participating on the media panel of the higher education symposium put on by the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU). The discussion revolved around the extremely negative publicity the industry has been receiving over the past year. I was joined on the panel by a reporter for NPR and another from the National Journal. Both explained that media stories of the industry have been mostly negative because they are covering the Senate committee hearings and U.S. Department of Education proposed industry regulations (which I have argued are counter-productive) that themselves have cast for-profit colleges in a negative light. Even if a news story provides both sides, readers are still presented a negative viewpoint on a for-profit industry that otherwise rarely makes the press.

This seems logical, but there is more to the story. Last week, The Village Voice announced that it was retracting its article "For-Profit Blues" because the article's author, Rob Sgobbo, had fabricated significant parts of the story. Specifically, Sgobbo invented a fake student named Tamicka Bourges and claimed that she had accumulated large debts at Berkeley College. Additionally, Sgobbo claimed he spoke with a representative at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) named Matt Fraser about the GAO's recent report that questioned the recruiting practices of many for-profit institutions. The only problem is that the GAO has no employees by that name.

This follows the announcement in December that the GAO's own report required several revisions. As Frederick Hess and Andrew Kelly pointed out, all the errors were such that they originally made the for-profit industry appear in a more negative light than was justified. I'll take a pass on speculating whether or not this was a mere accident on the part of the GAO, but either way it is another example of the industry receiving undeserved bad publicity.

Amidst all this bad publicity for higher education, one wonders why the traditional higher ed sector has escaped. Congress and the Department of Ed have focused rather keenly upon for-profit schools but ignored the reality that many non-profit institutions have very poor outcomes (for example, the University of the District of Columbia -- a mere 6 miles from the U.S. Capitol -- has a 4 year graduation rate of 3 percent). Rather than singularly attacking the for-profit industry, and sometimes using totally inaccurate claims, the media could provide a valuable service to the American people by telling these stories as well.

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