Groucho Marx once defined politics as “the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it, and then applying the wrong remedies.” This month’s hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, especially the evidence of blatant fraud brought out in the testimony of the Government Accountability Office’s Gregory D. Kutz, certainly seemed to demonstrate that trouble has been found in the admissions processes of some for-profit sector postsecondary institutions.
How it will be diagnosed and treated remains to be seen, though it is a reasonable bet that the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed repeal of the 14 “safe harbor” provisions related to the legislative prohibition of sales commissions will see its way to final rules in the near future. Re-regulation is not likely to stop there, however. The committee’s chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), made it clear during the August hearing that regulations can be changed by different administrations, suggesting that he will push for statutory amendments beyond whatever this Education Department chooses to do.
Suggesting that he will not stop short of measures that ensure “the highest level of integrity” in admissions, Harkin ended the six-hour hearing with a lengthy soliloquy in which he opined that the regulatory structure of the Title IV student aid programs makes the mistake of “privatizing the profit and socializing the risk.” This sounds like the beginning of a diagnosis statement, though I will leave it up to the good readers of this estimable publication to decide if the senator’s explanatory framework for the motives underlying for-profit sector admissions practices is within the parameters of Groucho’s dictum.
Instead, I would like to suggest that it is time for action by the two leading professional organizations that deal with collegiate admissions -- the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) and the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO).
Both of these organizations have been on the sidelines of the current debate, occasionally calling in a play to various quarterbacks. NACAC’s director of public policy and research, David Hawkins, testified before the HELP Committee, endorsing the abolition of safe harbors and promoting the virtues of NACAC’s “Statement of Principles of Good Practice.” He noted, accurately I might add, that his organization was founded in the 1930s to ensure that the interests of prospective students were always paramount. He stated that any form of commission based upon achieving enrollment numbers winds up “boiling the student out of the equation.”
What Hawkins did not say (though he mentioned in his written testimony that NACAC's membership includes "more than 1,600 high schools and 1,100 not-for-profit public and private colleges and universities") is that the association prohibits for-profit institutions from joining the organization. On the “Institutional Membership” page of NACAC’s website, there is a boldfaced warning that “Institutions that award a degree or a diploma and are operated for profit (proprietary) are not eligible for membership.” Thus, NACAC does not even present the opportunity to for-profit institutions to subscribe to its Statement of Principles of Good Practice and demonstrate by their deeds that they are capable of conducting their affairs with “the highest level of integrity.”
NACAC continues to maintain “separate but unequal” admissions cultures by this exclusionary policy at a time when regional and programmatic accreditors, the American Council on Education, and even AACRAO have opened their doors to for-profits. Why? What is there to lose if NACAC were to decide to integrate the ranks of admissions officers from all sectors of higher education and, perhaps by doing so, spread some enlightenment about the thinking behind its culture of student-oriented caring and counseling?
Is NACAC afraid it will find a few for-profits actually doing the right thing? Does it fear its membership will be tainted by the outsiders? Is NACAC engaged in monopolistic collusion to eliminate for-profit competition? Or has NACAC simply not re-thought this matter? I ask these questions honestly and guilelessly. I am simply puzzled that NACAC appears to be rejecting an opportunity to provide positive leadership in the voluntary, non-governmental arena.
AACRAO has a similar opportunity. As already noted, membership in AACRAO has been open for many years to degree-granting for-profit institutions accredited by an accrediting agency recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. These same qualifications apply equally to public and nonprofit institutions.
A statistical report prepared recently for AACRAO’s Board of Directors and published on the association’s website notes that 9 percent of AACRAO’s institutional members are from the for-profit sector. AACRAO itself has a “Statement of Professional Ethics and Practice,” adherence to which is expected from all members, including the 9 percent of institutional members that are for-profit. AACRAO is to be commended for its inclusive policies.
Yet more could be done by AACRAO. For example, there are no for-profit institutions represented on AACRAO’s Board of Directors or, for 2010-11, on its key committees on “Admissions Policies and Practices,” “Recruitment and Marketing,” “Enrollment Management and Retention,” and “Financial Aid and Enrollment Services.” While this failure to engage 9 percent of its membership in such important association affairs may be unintentional, it nevertheless should be examined, with an eye toward reaping the benefits of fostering constructive dialog and collaboration.
While the public statements of AACRAO’s associate executive director, Barmak Nassirian, have roundly criticized the for-profit sector, a careful reading of his lengthier statements reveals that he does not appear to tar all for-profits with the same brush. Were that to be the case, Nassarian would be in a conflict-of-interest position as an employee of an organization taking membership dues from institutions he does not believe should exist. I believe Nassarian would be on firmer ground as a representative of his association if AACRAO were to be more open to including for-profit sector administrators in its senior leadership structure, rather than relegating them for whatever reason to the lesser committees.
We have yet to see what remedies are constructed within the political arena. Hopefully they will not reflect a pattern of misdiagnosis, in the Groucho Marxist scheme of things. An objective historian of higher education over the past century would likely note that more changes in the governance structures and practices of American colleges and universities have come about as a result of sincere hard work by various accreditors and associations on behalf of this most important social institution than by the shifting tides of legislative and regulatory actions.
It is thus time for NACAC and AACRAO to move from the sidelines onto the playing field.
C. Ronald Kimberling was the assistant secretary for postsecondary education during the Reagan Administration. He has held teaching, administrative, and governance positions in public, independent nonprofit, and for-profit institutions in his 38-year career.