WASHINGTON -- Given how nasty and speculative the political and policy debate over the quality and value of for-profit colleges has become in recent weeks and months, there was reason to hope that a forum this week at which researchers aligned with and critical of the industry would present their work to a group of peers convened by the American Enterprise Institute might generate at least a little light. But while the dueling presentations by the Institute for College Access and Success and the Parthenon Group stopped well short of a "Jane, you ignorant slut"-style point-counterpoint, they also did not lead the assembled researchers, policy analysts and others where some of the participants hoped they might: to agreement, at the least, about what the appropriate questions are to be asked, and what data policy makers need (and don't have) to answer them.
This is partly because the researchers -- while lower-key and more objective than their political allies (in the case of the college access institute) or paying customers (in the case of Parthenon) -- largely "stayed in their trenches," said Eric Bettinger, an education professor at Stanford University, and "showed that you can use the exact same set of data to make it dance the way you want it to," as Craig Powell, CEO of ConnectEDU, described it. But the hopes for coalescing around a set of legitimate measures of institutional quality and student success were foiled also by recognition of the inadequacy of the available data. The current sources of data are not up to the task, and sources that might provide it -- like a database of student-level information that would allow policy makers to track students who move amid numerous institutions, and permit comparisons between different types of colleges -- may not be politically viable.