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Gunning for the GAO

January 13, 2011

WASHINGTON -- A for-profit advocacy group is continuing its attack on the U.S. Government Accountability Office, releasing a report today that accuses Congress's investigative arm of manipulating data and misstating facts in its highly critical review of for-profit colleges last summer.

The report -- commissioned and released by the Coalition for Educational Success and conducted by the consulting firm Norton/Norris, which conducts its own "mystery shopper" reviews for what its principals say is a mix of for-profit and nonprofit colleges -- documents what its authors say are dozens of misrepresentations by the government agency that when taken together, they assert, seriously undermine its conclusions.

"[O]ur review reveals that only 14 findings are credible as written by the GAO out of 65 originally reported (an additional 14 findings cannot be confirmed)," the report states. It cites the agency's "bias" -- "evident in several aspects of the undercover testing and subsequent report with inconsistencies in methodology, the lack of basic knowledge regarding college admissions practices and inaccurate reporting of conversations in order to skew facts."

Officials at Norton/Norris -- which is the same firm responsible for a much-criticized October report that compared community colleges unfavorably to for-profit institutions -- say they spent 164 hours reviewing the recordings that Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) made public last fall after the findings of the GAO report first came under scrutiny. (It would take a similar amount of time for Inside Higher Ed or any other publication to gauge the accuracy of the group's critique of the GAO.)

In the few hours that our staff had the report Wednesday, a spot check of a few of the report's findings suggested that it had uncovered some flaws in the GAO report -- but also that some of the purported errors identified by the critique were themselves exaggerated or wrong.

In the former category, the Norton/Norris review identifies several instances in which the GAO report accused college recruiters of avoiding direct questions (from GAO representatives posing as potential students) about the institutions' graduation rates. In one instance, according to GAO, "[t]he college representative did not tell the graduation rate when asked directly. The representative replied, 'I think, pretty much, if you try and show up and, you know, you do the work, you’re going to graduate. You’re going to pass guaranteed.' "

The Norton/Norris review finds that the recording "does not contain the alleged conversation. During the campus tour, the rep talks about graduation but the GAO undercover applicant does not ask about graduation rate at any time." Inside Higher Ed's review of that tape confirms the Norton/Norris account. A GAO spokesman said via e-mail that "this scenario came from a follow-up phone conversation and was not included in the audio provided to the Committee." (Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct this paragraph.)

In another example cited by Norton/Norris, the federal agency said that the admissions representative "did not disclose the graduation rate after being directly asked," explaining instead "that all students that do the work graduate."

But in the recording (discussion begins at about the 14:20 mark), the would-be students never directly ask what the graduation rate is. To the question "Most people graduate that come through?," the admissions official says, "I'm going to be honest with you, like upfront. Would I say most people who come through do? No. The people that are supposed to graduate, who really want to graduate, do they graduate? Yes. A lot of people you see come through come through because they think it's going to be easy, it's going to be free money, or just didn't do the work.... I've never seen people who do the work not graduate."

In other instances, however, findings that Norton/Norris said were incorrect or not confirmable appeared to unfold pretty much just as GAO described. For example, the firm asserts that a finding about a recruiter wooing a prospective applicant by asking her to envision walking across the stage at graduation was "taken out of context." But the conversation shows the recruiter making the statement in the context of a discussion about her educational goals -- clearly as part of the process of trying to get her to enroll.

And in another case, Norton/Norris says that it could not confirm a GAO finding that "paying back loans should not be a concern [for a student] because once he had his new job, repayment would not be an issue." The consultant's report says that "[a]fter reviewing the recording, there is no evidence of a discussion about a 'new job' or that 'repayment would not be an issue' " -- when those terms were GAO's paraphrase of the discussion, not actual excerpts. The recording shows the discussion to unfold largely as GAO initially asserted.

GAO officials responded to the report late Wednesday.

"The consultants hired by the Coalition to discredit the report never contacted GAO for explanations and failed to take into account many factors, including the fact that not all information in the report can be found on the audio tapes posted to the Internet," Chuck Young, GAO's managing director for public affairs, said in an e-mailed statement. "For example, GAO turned over some videotapes to the inspector general at the Department of Education due to evidence of serious wrongdoing uncovered by investigators. Audio from those visits was not able to be posted. There were also written materials that were examined as part of the work and are not on the tapes. We are reviewing the tapes to see if there were any segments that were not provided to the committee.

"But the bottom line remains that a GAO review team independent from the investigators who did this work examined the report and found no material flaws in the evidentiary support for the overall message of the testimony and consequently our findings did not change. We did issue the errata at their suggestion to clarify our work and provide more precise language. We continue to stand by the overall message of this report."

 

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