The Government Accountability Office on Wednesday released the latest in a recent series of reports requested as part of Sen. Tom Harkin's continuing investigation into for-profit higher education, with this one focused on student outcomes. The new GAO report, which leaned heavily on a research study examined in an Inside Higher Ed article Wednesday, finds that the colleges lag other institutions in student unemployment, borrowing rates, debt loads, loan default rates and licensing exam pass rates, but performed better on certificate program completion rates and had similar outcomes in associate degree graduation rates and student earnings.
The GAO report acknowledged that it is difficult to compare the performance of for-profits with public and private nonprofit institutions, because the industry enrolls a "higher proportion of low-income, minority and nontraditional students who face challenges that can affect their educational outcomes," and because none of the available data sets are complete enough to give a fully accurate comparison across sectors. The GAO conducted mostly new research in analyzing licensing exam pass rates, which found that for-profit-college students had worse pass rates than their peers at nonprofit colleges in 9 of 10 exams, such as those for paramedics, lawyers and massage therapists. But the GAO cautioned that few college graduates take the exams and that student characteristics, such as race and income, were generally not available. The GAO was not able to control for those factors, which might have influenced outcomes.