Government made major revisions to for-profit colleges report, didn't tell public

Recent revisions to a Government Accountability Office report on for-profit colleges have raised questions about the GAO’s objectivity and credibility. Now, a bipartisan group of six members of Congress has asked that those questions be answered.

The GAO report of Aug. 4 was prepared for the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee at the request of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). It criticized the recruiting practices of for-profit colleges and universities based on the evidence of 28 key investigative “scenarios.” The revisions, released Nov. 30, made factual changes to 16 of the 28.

Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), John Kline (R-Minn.), Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.), and Glenn Thomas (R-Pa.) yesterday released a letter to Acting U.S. Comptroller Gene Dodaro requesting an explanation for the revisions by Jan. 3.

The revisions were not inconsequential. They revealed that statements previously attributed to for-profit college representatives were actually made at the direction of undercover GAO investigators posing as applicants.

The original GAO report, for example, indicated that a “[f]inancial aid representative estimated federal aid eligibility without the undercover applicant’s reported $250,000 in savings to see if applicant qualified for more financial aid.” The revised report notes that it was the undercover GAO applicant who specifically requested the college representative do exactly that. 

Despite these changes, the GAO didn’t even announce the release of the modified report on its website.

“The revisions in the report raise a number of troubling questions,” the lawmakers state in the letter. “What GAO innocuously described as ‘additional information’ and ‘additional context’ amounted to major changes.”

The original report had notable consequences. After the report concluded that proprietary colleges and universities utilized unethical and potentially illegal practices to recruit students, for-profit schools’ stock values plummeted nearly 14 percent, a $4.3 billion loss. Education Secretary Arne Duncan responded to the report with a pledge to strengthen the rules related to federal student aid and for-profit colleges and universities.

Some say the revisions — had they been made before the report was released — might have prevented these effects. But the GAO claims its conclusions in the report are still sound, even though so many of the “facts” upon which they were based have been revised. It’s that claim that Issa and company now want corroborated by the comptroller.

“As the ‘congressional watchdog,’ GAO’s mission is to ‘provide Congress with timely information that is objective, fact-based, nonpartisan, nonideological, fair and balanced,” the lawmakers write. “Our interest in this matter is ensuring that GAO adheres to its mandate.”

Congress is not the only entity with an interest in the objectivity of the GAO. The Coalition for Educational Success, which represents many of America’s career colleges, has expressed concern about the report. In a letter dated Dec. 16, the group’s counsel Lanny J. Davis asked the Senate HELP Committee to conduct its own review of the report.

“It is now clear that the GAO’s work product was riddled with selective omissions, unsubstantiated conclusions and careless inaccuracies,” Davis wrote. “Most disturbing, all of the errors disclosed in the report were shaded against the schools, suggesting a measure of willful intent. … The GAO report has already done extensive damage to our schools and to the students, faculty and employers who depend on them. … To limit any further damage, it is important that the Department suspend the rulemaking process to allow the full Committee to conduct its own review of the GAO report.”

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